Providing Unpaid Household and Care Work in the United States: Uncovering Inequality

Cynthia Hess, Ph.D., Tanima Ahmed, Jeff Hayes, Ph.D.

January 20, 2020
  • ID: C487

In the United States, women spend considerably more time than men over their lifetime doing unpaid household and care work. The unequal distribution of this work—work that is essential for families and societies to thrive—not only limits women’s career choices and economic empowerment, but also affects their overall health and well-being. In recent years, the gender gap in unpaid household and care work in the United States has narrowed as more women have entered the labor market and men have taken on more of this work, yet it is unlikely that a significant further shift can occur without public policies that better support families with unpaid care responsibilities (Samman, Presler-Marshall, and Jones 2016). Increasing societal investments in care, and strengthening supports for working adults that allow them adequate time for providing unpaid care for their loved ones, would affirm the value of unpaid household and care work and contribute to the well-being of households, communities, and societies. These shifts are critical now, especially as the need for care for older adults in the United States is growing rapidly (Mather, Jacobsen, and Pollard 2015).


Many studies have examined the gender gap in unpaid household and care work and its causes, yet few consider how women’s experiences with this work might differ across demographic groups and how the size of the gender gap in household and unpaid care work might change when the full range of household and care work activities, including elder care and “secondary” as well as “primary” child care, is considered. This briefing paper draws on relevant literature and analysis of data from the 2018 American Time Use Survey to examine the relationship between unpaid work and gender economic inequalities in the United States. It begins by analyzing gender differences in the amount of time spent on unpaid household and care work by age, marital status, race/ethnicity, migration status, employment status, and education and income levels to assess how demographic factors may shape women’s experiences of this gap. The briefing paper then considers the relationship between women’s earnings and unpaid household and care work activities to assess how increased time spent on unpaid work might affect women’s earnings and economic security. It concludes with recommended changes to public policies in the United States that would recognize the value of unpaid household and care work and facilitate more equitable distribution of this work between women and men.