Women May Finally Get Money for Unpaid Caregiving Work

Women are disproportionately affected by the negative consequences of unpaid caregiving work. A new bill proposed by Senator Chris Murphy and backed by Bernie Sanders ensures that anyone leaving their job to take care of a loved one gets paid.

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Mar 28 2016, 5:07pm

Photo by Treasures & Travels via Stocksy

Although women have long been held back on the job—often expected to devote our lives to unpaid at-home caregiving—we constitute nearly half of those working paid jobs in the US today. Despite this, women who do take on a caregiving role, often leave their job to do so out of necessity, losing pay and benefits in the process. But Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) has recently proposed a bill that would bridge that gap slightly, by providing a Social Security credit for women (or men) who have had to leave their job to care for a loved one—be they a child, grandparent, or someone else.

A press release issued by Senator Murphy earlier this month announced the Social Security Caregivers Credit Act (SSCCA), stating that there are "tens of millions" of such Americans, and that total losses incurred by caregiving in the US "total more than $300,000," which threatens financial security during retirement because caregivers do not earn Social Security benefits during the years they leave the workforce to take care of a loved one. According to Murphy, "women, who make up two-thirds of unpaid caregivers, are disproportionately impacted." The bill is sponsored by president hopeful Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT), whose March 18th announcement read, in part: "People who care for loved ones deserve our gratitude. Penalizing caregivers by docking the Social Security benefits they count on is backwards. I'm introducing the Social Security Caregiver Credit Act because Washington should support those who support their families."

Joya Misra, a political sociologist specializing in inequality at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, explained how Murphy's bill would have a great impact on American women, specifically. "This bill would have the greatest impact on unpaid caregivers," she says. "Since more women than men provide unpaid care, and more women than men leave work to provide care, it will help retired women regain income lost by spending time providing unpaid care."

ThinkProgress reported Murphy's statements announcing SSCCA. In addition to highlighting the impact it would have in the lives of Americans, Murphy said that "we are long overdue for a paradigm shift in terms of how America thinks of work." The social definition of legitimate work has long excluded caregiving which, as noted above, disproportionately affects women. According to Misra, "caregiving work, when done unpaid, has not been seen as work." She adds that "even paid caregiving work is devalued in our society—[it's] paid less than non-caregiving work."

When we think of caregiving, we often think of motherhood. And motherhood, in the United States, can be economically devastating. Earlier this year, Broadly exposed the dire consequences of our nation's lack of federally mandated maternity leave. This form of institutionalized sexism has bred unsafe conditions for children and depleted the life savings of families while effectively lowering women's work opportunities and widening the wage gap between men and women.

Watch: Maternity Leave: How America Is Failing Its Mothers

"If we had a federally mandated paid leave, time taken out for care would not appear as time spent earning 'zero' dollars, which has hurt the retirement incomes of women," Misra said. But that doesn't mean that SSCCA is a replacement for maternity leave policy reform. At best, it's a stopgap. "Paid leave is generally for short caregiving stints, rather than the longer caregiving stints that have especially harmed women's retirement income. So, I would say that this bill should not be seen as a replacement for paid leave, or vice versa. Both are necessary if we are to recognize the need for care for a strong economy and country."