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Care work makes all other work possible. It is also the fastest-growing sector of work in the world—projected to add 150 million jobs by 2030. The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified the importance of care work. It has also exposed how women perform most caregiving work, which is unpaid, underpaid, and/or undervalued. Globally, women and girls contribute more than 70 percent of total global caregiving hours (paid and unpaid) and perform more than 75 percent of unpaid care work. The inordinate amount of unpaid care work women and girls perform prevents them from earning a paid income, which contributes to greater gender inequities worldwide.

The global care economy—the paid and unpaid labor related to caregiving such as childcare, elder care, and domestic chores—is a critical sector that enhances economic growth, gender equity, and women’s empowerment. Care work is economically valuable but globally undervalued. In the United States, contributions related to the care economy amount to $648 billion, annually. Globally, if unpaid care workers earned a minimum wage they would add nearly $11 trillion a year to the global economy.

In a new policy brief, The Global Care Economy, the Wilson Center’s Maternal Health Initiative explores the economic and societal value of caregiving work, the burden of caregiving on women, and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on caregivers. Investing in the paid and unpaid care workforce, creating family-friendly workplaces, and addressing the harmful social norms and the physical and mental burdens of caregiving are critical to support and value care work globally.

In the United States, women, especially women of color, are more likely to work in essential front-line occupations including care work, leaving them at higher risk of COVID-19 illness and mortality. This is also the case globally, where women and girls make up two-thirds of the paid care workforce.

Unpaid care work presents additional challenges for women. Globally, 647 million full-time unpaid caregivers are not seeking a job due to their caregiving responsibilities. Most (93 percent) are women. In the United States, more than 1 in 5 adults were unpaid family caregivers prior to the pandemic. Now, an estimated 43 percent of adults in the United States are unpaid caregivers.

While there have been some policy-level interventions to support caregivers in the United States and globally, greater investments are needed to appropriately value and support care work. Investing in the paid and unpaid care workforce can result in increased household earnings, a more gender-equitable distribution of unpaid care work, and improved working conditions in the paid care sector. To support parents in the workforce, it is critical to support family-friendly workplaces through flexible leave policies. Additionally, policies and programs must address harmful social norms that contribute to the unequal distribution of care work.

This Global Health & Gender Policy Brief was made possible through the generous support of EMD Serono, the healthcare business of Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany.

Maternal Health Initiative

Life and health are the most basic human rights, yet disparities between and within countries continue to grow. No single solution or institution can address the variety of health concerns the world faces. By leveraging, building on, and coordinating the Wilson Center’s strong regional and cross-cutting programming, the Maternal Health Initiative (MHI) promotes dialogue and understanding among practitioners, scholars, community leaders, and policymakers.  Read more