Excerpted From: Amy Royce and Amy Matsui, Unsupported: Underinvestment in the Care Economy Drives Gender and Racial Wealth Gaps, 48 Human Rights 14 (2023) (Full Document)


RoyceMatsuFor every dollar of wealth owned by a single white man, single Black women and Latinas own roughly 9 cents. That gap is stark--and consequential.

Wealth is commonly understood as people's assets minus their debts, or, in other words, their total available resources. People need wealth to cope with unexpected moments in the present, like a smaller-than-usual paycheck, a car repair, or a medical emergency. But they also need wealth to plan for a hopeful, more stable future--to pursue education, start a business, or access other opportunities.

Lack of wealth is deeply harmful for everyone but especially for women with low incomes and single women of color. Women of color, and women more generally, face numerous barriers to building wealth: wage disparities, other forms of employment discrimination, student loan debt, lack of access to credit, and diminished access to investment opportunities.


Another factor that contributes to the gender and racial wealth gap is our national failure to invest in caregiving. Data shows that becoming a parent is a critical inflection point where income inequality deepens, which impacts lifetime earnings--and wealth. Up until they have children, women and men experience approximately equal rates of poverty, but once there are children to care for, these rates start to diverge. Black, Latina, and Indigenous women with children are most affected, experiencing the highest rates of poverty. Overall, a mother with one child earns 28 percent less than a childless woman over the course of her lifetime, and each additional child decreases her lifetime earnings by another 3 percent.

Most fathers, by contrast, do not experience any decrease in earnings and may even earn more--a discouraging disparity known as the “fatherhood premium.” Women also disproportionately reduce their hours of work or leave the workforce to care for children and family members, often to their own economic detriment. One study showed women who leave the workforce to care for family members lose on average $142,693 in wages and stand to lose an additional $131,351 in Social Security benefits.

Caregiving can be the ultimate act of love, but it is work. And as care worker advocate Ai-jen Poo puts it: care is “the work that makes all other work possible.” Unfortunately, the United States lacks a robust national care infrastructure to help workers balance work and family responsibilities. And research and experience (especially over the course of the pandemic) show that caregiving responsibilities--and the economic consequences that result from the lack of structural supports--fall disproportionately on women.

Take paid leave. Right now, the United States is the only industrialized nation without a comprehensive national paid family and medical leave program. Workers of color and low-paid workers are least likely to work in jobs that offer paid leave. Without paid leave, workers are forced to take unpaid leave, use up their vacation or sick leave, reduce their hours, or exit the workforce entirely to care for themselves or their loved ones, which reduces their household incomes. For some women, the need to balance work and caregiving pushes them into low-paid, part-time jobs, many of which lack paid family and medical leave and other benefits, compounding their economic stress.

Or consider childcare. As Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen recently summarized: Childcare in this country is “a textbook example of a broken market.”

Even before the pandemic, families struggled with the high cost and limited supply of high-quality childcare, and that supply has since been further depleted. Latina mothers are disproportionately likely to live in “childcare deserts,” where licensed childcare providers are limited or nonexistent. Women of color are also more likely to work in low-paying jobs with inflexible or non-standard schedules, meaning they need care after hours or on weekends when fewer providers offer it. When families cannot find or afford childcare, women tend to be the ones who reduce their hours of paid work or leave the workforce altogether in order to provide that care.

And even as families struggle to afford the cost of childcare, the Black, Latina, Indigenous, and immigrant women who are largely providing that care are inadequately compensated and in economically precarious positions themselves. The lack of public investment in affordable, high-quality childcare harms the economic security of both the women providing that care and those who need to access it.

In addition, our nation has historically underinvested in home- and community-based services for people who are older or disabled, leaving families--especially women--to bear the costs of providing that care. Women make up a disproportionate share of those caring for aging or disabled parents, spouses, or other adult family members. Particularly for women who are “sandwich” caregivers--caring for both children and older adult family members--balancing unpaid care work and paid employment can feel impossible, but reducing hours of paid work or leaving the workforce only compounds their short- and long-term financial stress. Women also represent a disproportionate share of the workforce providing that care, who are themselves underpaid.


Before the pandemic, the impact of caregiving on women's economic security was, if not invisible, largely shielded from public view. But the global health and economic crisis revealed women's undervalued and undercompensated caregiving work. Workforce exits and reductions in paid work hours were highly skewed by gender during the pandemic: When childcare programs and schools shut down, women were more likely to cut back their paid work to care for children. When adult family members got sick, women were more likely to take on extra caregiving responsibilities. What's more, the childcare sector, where almost all workers are women, lost more than one-third of its workforce and has still not fully recovered, despite robust job growth in other sectors of the economy.

Simply put: All of us will need to care for ourselves or someone else at some point in our lives. But the lack of caregiving supports has massively adverse consequences on women's incomes, participation in the labor force, lifetime earnings, wealth, and overall well-being. Black mothers, who are more likely than other mothers to be their family's primary breadwinner, are especially affected.


The disruptions to women's paid work and incomes caused by caregiving have immediate harmful economic effects--and, unfortunately, long-term ones, too. If a woman has primarily worked part-time or been pushed out of the workforce to provide care, it may take longer for her to later find full-time employment. She may not get full credit for her experience, undercutting her wages, benefits, and retirement savings. And the detrimental economic effects of providing caregiving with inadequate support compound over a lifetime. Women with two children are estimated to lose $94,000 in earnings over their lifetimes for reduced workforce participation and work hours because of the lack of affordable childcare. Unequal caregiving responsibilities shouldered by women are a key driver of the gender wage gap, which can cause women who work full-time, year-round to lose $400,000 over a 40-year career, with the lifetime earnings loss for Black women totaling nearly $1 million and the lifetime earnings loss for Latinas exceeding $1.1 million.

In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision overturning Roe v. Wade and declaring that there is no constitutional right to abortion, women will need caregiving supports more than ever. Being denied abortion care can have significant and long-term economic, social, and physical consequences for people who become pregnant. Women will face unanticipated costs of raising children, meaning they have less spare income to save. They will be less likely to finish high school or college, lessening educational attainment when it is highly correlated with future earnings and wealth. More women will be working while pregnant and parenting young children, opening them up to discrimination and the increased wage gap for mothers. And on top of that, more women will grapple with caregiving while in the paid workforce.


We have long needed to address the economic consequences of caregiving on women's incomes, lifetime earnings, and wealth, and that need will only become more acute. But the good news is that there is a clear path forward to fixing the care economy and giving women the support they need and deserve. Research shows that countries which provide public support for caregiving, moderate-length paid family leave, medical leave, and publicly funded childcare keep mothers in the workforce and reduce the economic “motherhood penalty.” If women caregivers are better supported, they are less likely to experience racial and gender wealth gaps.

Women, and especially women of color, shouldn't have to forfeit the opportunity to accumulate the wealth they need to live in economic dignity because they care for children, older relatives, or other family members (or need care themselves). But in the absence of a care infrastructure, when women disproportionately bear responsibility for caregiving, they disproportionately bear the economic cost. Lawmakers must make robust investments in the care economy--because only then will we have a real chance at eliminating racial and gender wealth gaps.

Amy Royce is senior counsel at the National Women's Law Center (NWLC)

Amy Matsui is director of income security at the NWLC.