Work, Women and Caregiving

Women CaregiversAn article from Paula Span of the New York Times

Trying to hold onto a job while caring for a family member is a tough juggling act. Caregivers sometimes have to arrive late or leave early, cut back to part-time work, and decline travel or promotions.

For women, these competing responsibilities may prove particularly perilous, a study recently published in the Journal of Applied Gerontology suggests. Women who are caregivers are also significantly less likely to be in the labor force, compared to women who are not caregivers. Yet for men, caregiving has no impact on employment status.

The authors, two professors of social work, unearthed these patterns in national data gathered in 2004 in the Health and Retirement Study. They looked at participants aged 50 to 61, more than 5,100 people, roughly a third of them family caregivers. About 4 percent were caring for a spouse, 15 percent for a grandchild and about 20 percent for a parent; some took care of more than one relative.

(Every study seems to use a different definition of caregiving. In this case, the researchers defined it as caring for parents or grandchildren for at least 100 hours over two years; spousal caregivers had no minimum time requirement.)

As in virtually every other study, women were more likely to care for parents. Seven percent of the total sample assisted with parents’ personal needs, compared to 3.6 percent of men. Close to 16 percent of men helped parents with chores, errands and transportation, while more than 20 percent of women did. Gender differences did not arise much between those caring for spouses or grandchildren.

 

Gender made a significant difference in employment, however. Most of these middle-aged adults were in the labor force, meaning that they had jobs, were unemployed but looking for work, or had recently taken sick leave or been laid off.

But women were significantly less likely to be in the labor force if they were providing personal care for parents or caring for grandchildren, or if they were caregivers for more than one person. Among men, caregiving had no relationship to employment status.

It’s possible that men’s income supports households, so that they don’t have the option to leave the work force, said Yeonjung Lee, the study’s lead author, who teaches at the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada. It’s also possible that jobs combine more easily with the “instrumental” tasks men tend to assume, like errand-running, than with the personal care women are more apt to provide, like bathing.

Of course, this amounts to one of those correlation-not-causation findings. Based on this data, “I cannot argue that caregiving makes people leave the labor force,” Dr. Lee said. The relationship could work the other way around: women not in the labor force may be more apt to become caregivers. Moreover, the recession might have changed the picture since 2004.

But in forthcoming studies (which we’ll report on, so stay tuned), Dr. Lee has used longitudinal data from the Health and Retirement Study to determine that caregiving does lead women to withdraw from the work force.

What makes this particularly worrisome is that older women already have higher poverty rates than men. Last year, according to the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey, 11 percent of women over age 65 lived in poverty, compared to 6.6 percent of men. An analysis by the National Women’s Law Center points out that the poverty rate is especially high among women who live alone(nearly 19 percent) and among black, Hispanic or Native American women (over 20 percent).

“In the long term, if women leave the labor force, they are at risk,” Dr. Lee said. “They don’t have enough opportunity to contribute to pensions or save money for the future.”

We can go back and forth about the impact of caregiving, its burdens versus its benefits, both of which researchers have documented. But when it comes to working, “we didn’t see any positive effect of caregiving on employment for women,” Dr. Lee said.

Most Americans regard caregiving as a family responsibility; our government sees it that way, too. But if caregiving pushes people out of the work force during what are often prime earning years, if it depresses their eventual Social Security income and increases the odds of an impoverished old age, particularly for women, that’s a scary prospect — and a greater sacrifice than we can ask individuals to handle alone.