This is the fifth 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).

Nancy Folbre, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, began the “The Undervaluation of Care Work in the Human Services Sector workshop with a chicken-and-egg question: “Is care undervalued because it is primarily provided by disempowered people—especially women of color—or are disempowered groups relegated to providing care because it is undervalued?” The answer, of course, is both, including in the human service or social assistance sector, which provides services such as support for older people, veterans, and children and families in need, mental health support, and food aid. Women are the large majority of workers in the sector, and women of color are particularly overrepresented. These jobs often require a BA, if not a master’s degree, yet data shared by Folbre show that human services workers have much lower earnings compared to others with a bachelor’s degrees. One of the factors behind this underpayment is that their clients have little political voice and are often culturally stigmatized.

IWPR’s Ariane Hegewisch showed that the undervaluation of care work is not due to lower job demands by using an equal pay for equal value (or comparable worth) approach. In the US, there is only a right to equal pay for equal work, yet women and men often do different work—and typically, women’s work is paid less. Pay discrimination laws elsewhere normally include a right to equal pay for different work of equivalent or comparable worth. Jobs can be compared granularly—assessing, for example, skills and knowledge needed, the physical environment, responsibility for people or resources, and physical or mental demands. Using a method developed in the UK to tackle past racial and gender bias in job evaluations by allocating a point value to the total size or demands of a job, a teaching assistant (child care) job in nonprofit human services in Seattle scored around 10 percent higher than that of a public sector administrator/project manager but was paid 50 percent less. An equal pay for equal value approach has been used by unions to organize women workers.

Sarah Butts, director of public policy for the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), discussed the NASW’s Blueprint for Federal Social Policy Priorities. Many of the country’s 700,000 social workers work in the human services sector. Many of them are women of color, particularly in recent cohorts, and close to half of recent master of social work graduates are the first in their families to go to college. Given the low starting wages (just $47,000 for someone with a master’s degree in 2022), college debt is a huge problem. In response to a question about data and data sources from moderator Jennifer Turner, IWPR’s project lead on the undervaluation of social work, Butts noted how scarce—but also how crucial—good data are when pushing for legislative change for social workers.

The two remaining panelists focused on strategies for higher funding at the state and local levels. Jennie Romich, professor of social welfare at the University of Washington School of Social Work, led a study team (that also included Folbre and Hegewisch, among others) on the comparative pay of nonprofit human services workers in Seattle. The wage study showed that nonprofit human services workers were paid at least 30 percent less than workers in non-care industries even though their jobs were as demanding, if not more. Developing and disseminating recommendations were a key component of the study. A short-term demand for a 7 percent increase in real wages in the sector (adjusting separately for inflation) has now been agreed to by the city. The Seattle Human Services Coalition, which successfully pushed for funding for the project, and the study team are pushing for fully closing the wage gap within the next four years.

Michelle Jackson, executive director of the Human Services Council of New York (HSC), discussed HSC’s #JustPay campaign to tackle low pay for human service workers (57 percent of whom are women of color). As in Seattle, HSC is supported by good data, including the disturbing fact that in 2019, roughly two-thirds of human service workers earned less than the city’s near-poverty threshold. Creative campaigning, such as an “Up All Night” rally at NYC City Hall led by the leaders of 50 nonprofits, two City Hall rallies attended by at least 1,000 workers, and a very successful ‘Break up with the Mayor’ Valentine’s Day social media campaign, are yielding some results: a 4 percent cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) in the 2024 state budget (up from 2.5 percent), and a multiyear commitment to an annual 3 percent COLA in New York City. These are very important victories, but they are still far from closing the 30 percent wage gap human services workers face in New York.

The workshop not only highlighted the huge tasks ahead to ensure proper funding and decent wages for care work but also the magnified impact when research, policy work, and public campaigning are working together.

Ariane Hegewisch is a senior research fellow at IWPR.

Watch the full workshop here and download the presentations here.