Unpaid Caregivers are Slipping Through US Safety Net

Mobile Share Email Facebook Twitter LinkedIn

On Oct. 24, 1975, the women of Iceland went on strike to “demonstrate to ourselves and to others the importance of our role in society.”

No going to work. No cooking. No taking care of the children. Stores, fish factories and schools closed as women poured into the streets to demand equality. Some men were forced to take their kids to work or stay home to care for them.

Policies enacted over the 50 years since the strike have made Icelandic women’s lives easier. The public day care centers are recognized as among the highest-quality, least expensive in the world, costing single parents and couples only 5 percent of their income, compared with 30 percent here. College is essentially free in Iceland, which also ranks at the top for equal pay for women. The United States is 43rd. To be sure, Icelanders pay for these generous benefits with a higher average personal income tax rate.

Photo of book “Holding it Together” by Calarco

In her new book, “Holding it Together: How Women Became America’s Safety Net,” sociologist Jessica Calarco contends that because the U.S. social safety net has more holes than in other wealthy countries like Iceland, the burden of our DIY system falls heaviest on women who are unpaid caregivers. Yes, men are increasingly pitching in. But up to 70 percent of the people providing unpaid care for children and elderly parents are still women.

“What sets American women apart is that they’re expected to hold it together without the kind of institutionalized support systems on which women in other countries rely,” Calarco explains.

To show where the social safety net fails caregivers, her research team interviewed more than 200 lower- and middle-income women in prenatal clinics and followed up over 18 months. Many but not all were single mothers.

In “Holding it Together,” Calarco focuses on the trials of young mothers like Erin. She and her husband, Mark, met in college but neither graduated. Together they earned $30,000 a year in a small Indiana town. When Erin got pregnant, each of them could afford to take only one week of unpaid time off. Day care was a bigger problem: they earned too much for Indiana’s subsidized day care but not enough to afford it on their own. The irony for Erin, like many mothers, is that expensive daycare forced her to quit her job. Only when the couple’s income dropped in half could she qualify for Medicaid insurance and the Women, Infants, and Children’s (WIC) nutrition program. But without her salary, paying for diapers, which WIC doesn’t subsidize, was a big expense.

I wish the researchers had also talked with caregivers for people with disabilities. And think about the caregivers at the other end of life. Older women who take care of ailing spouses or parents with dementia face different challenges when the safety net fails them. These unpaid caregivers are often forced to reduce their work hours or retire early to care for an elderly family member. Paid caregivers have a different issue. Some 90 percent of nurse’s aides are women and often immigrants earning very low wages for the hands-on care they provide at assisted living and memory care facilities and at nursing homes.

Things looked up for Erin and Mark in Indiana when he got a $35,000-a-year job with health insurance. But the monthly premium was $400 – on top of their $1,500 rent – and the health insurance had a $7,000 annual deductible. Mark, feeling the pressure of succeeding in a new job, started working more, leaving Erin alone at home for long hours with the toddler and a newborn. She would’ve liked to work to get a break from intensive parenting. It still didn’t make sense. “My [whole] salary would go towards daycare anyway,” she said.  

In many of Calarco’s stories about young mothers, grandmothers also lurk in the background, providing free day care to help out while their children go off to work.

Several other young women who were interviewed had other complaints about problems with the safety net that undermine them, particularly not being allowed to use SNAP food stamps to buy diapers. Other women in low-paying jobs earned too much to qualify at all for Medicaid health insurance or food stamps.

Calarco argues that the “Meritocracy Myth” is a cultural barrier – along with traditional gender roles – that sometimes prevents women from getting the government support they need. In a survey that has been fielded regularly since the 1970s, Americans are asked whether people get ahead due to hard work, help from others, or both. Seventy percent consistently believe that hard work alone is the key to success.

The Meritocracy Myth, she said, “undermine[s] efforts to strengthen the social safety net and make its protections universal” and “raises questions about the deservingness of people who are struggling.” 

A college education is often touted as one way young women can get on a track to higher-paying jobs. But tuition at U.S. colleges has become prohibitive, in contrast to places like Germany, Norway, Greece, Argentina, and Brazil, where tuition is essentially free. In the United States, Pell grants for low-income students used to cover 75 percent of tuitions but now cover only 30 percent, Calarco said.

Even if men and women do manage to graduate from college, the financial payoff from higher education has shrunk over time as tuitions have soared. But, again, this issue affects the women graduates more, because they tend to earn less than men.

The challenge, Calarco writes, “is ensuring that the people who do the work of caregiving, whether formally or informally, are given the resources to do that work effectively and without sacrificing their own needs or personal responsibilities for care.”

Squared Away writer Kim Blanton invites you to follow us @SquaredAwayBC on X, formerly known as Twitter. To stay current on our blog, join our free email list. You’ll receive just one email each week – with links to the two new posts for that week – when you sign up here.  This blog is supported by the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College.

1 comment
Dan Thompson

These amounts do not seem generalizable. $30,000 a year for two people implies that they’re both earning minimum wage if they’re working full time. Even in an Indiana small town, these wages seem too low for two people with some college in a state with a sub-4% unemployment rate. And $1500 for rent is implausibly high for rent. A decent two bedroom is $800-900 in an Indiana small town and $1000-1200 in larger cities and suburbs.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *. The Center for Retirement Research does not post all comments and may edit some for clarity or brevity. For more details on our reader comments policy, see here.