This is the first blog in a series detailing the panels and discussions that took place at the recent 2024 Care Conference hosted by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) and American University’s Program on Gender Analysis in Economics (PGAE).

Throughout human existence, every person has needed and experienced the care of another. Care work—whether paid or unpaid—provides the foundation on which other work is built, yet care is a neglected aspect of the economy. To put care at the center of the economic debate, IWPR and the American University recently hosted the 2024 Care Conference. The goal, as IWPR’s CEO and President Dr. Jamila Taylor put it in her opening comments, was to “set a path for the policy changes we desperately need at the federal [and state] level” and bring together academic and policy researchers, policymakers, and advocates focused on improving the care infrastructure. The opening plenary, “Exploring the Care Nexus: Intersections of Care, Gender, and Racial Inequality,” underscored the role of care in our society and its deep entanglement with gender and racial disparities.

Chrishana Lloyd from Child Trends kicked off the presentation by putting the undervaluation of care into the context of US history, providing a frame necessary for understanding the roots of the observed data in today’s economy. Importantly, as Lloyd pointed out, the timelines of Native Americans, Black families, and White families, derived from the Mary Pauper Papers, reveal a disturbing history where “about 75 percent of the time this country has been in existence, there have been really horrible things happening to people of color,” and that without these really horrible occurrences, there would “essentially be no wealth in the country, no power for White Americans.” This history then served as a backdrop for the remainder of the conference to understand the current state of domestic care work and the persistent racial and gender disparities that plague it.  

The Director of the Center for American Progress’ Disability Justice Initiative, Mia Ives-Rublee, also shared her insights, exposing the implications of ableism, calling out societal values and views around productivity and worth which diminish and marginalize disabled people, and pointing to the fact that the roles and needs of disabled people who may themselves be caregivers—paid or unpaid—are overlooked in society. As she noted, “disabled people are only viewed as receivers of care, not taking into account how they provide care.” A substantial number of people working in the care economy—disproportionately so—have a disability themselves. Ives-Rublee also noted that disability rates increased by 10 percent since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic but that there is a continued systematic disregard for the disabled in the care nexus—something that must be addressed, and quickly.  

IWPR’s Chief Economist and SVP of Research, Kate Bahn, introduced the pressing issue of occupational segregation for women’s economic security to the discussion and how it is influenced by both paid and unpaid caregiving responsibilities. Caregiving obligations limit the amount of time women can dedicate to their careers (e.g., 23 percent of women work part-time but only 11 percent of men) and, at the same time, push women into underpaid care occupations. Despite their prevalence in the sector—women are 75 percent of care workers and 80 percent of workers in care-related fields—women earn less than men in care. The care industry has played heavily into the gap we observe between male and female employment and wages, and those care-related gaps impact Social Security earnings and retirement outcomes.  

Deputy Director of the Women’s Bureau, Tiffany Boiman, took this thread further to focus on the profound impact of caregiving responsibilities and the undervaluation of paid care work on women’s economic security throughout their lives. Boiman detailed that, on average, women lose about $295,000 over their lifetimes, with $273,000 lost due to caregiving and $58,000 lost in potential retirement income. Consequently, the poverty rate among people aged 65 and older is much higher for women than for men.  

The Opening Plenary of the 2024 Care Conference served as a distinct call to action, highlighting the urgency of addressing these interconnected issues. The insights of the session’s experts and their framing of the issue for the eager audience set the perfect tone for the topics highlighted the rest of the day, including workshops on Retirement Gaps and Elder Care; the Undervaluation of Human Services Work; Care, Immigration, and Job Quality; and Care Infrastructure Gaps and Funding, culminating in a solutions-focused closing plenary.  

Mia Bergin is a second-year undergraduate student in economics at American University’s Program on Gender Analysis in Economics.   

Watch the full workshop here and download the presentations here.