Leaving Work to Care for Family Could Cost You Hundreds of Thousands of Dollars

A new interactive from the Center for American Progress helps you calculate how much you will lose if you exit the workforce to care for a family member — and the answers are depressing. 

Take me for example: I’m 23 and earn $38,000 a year. If I take off one year of work at the age of 28 to care for a child or an aging parent, the cost of that decision will be $131,000. That’s because, in addition to the wages lost during that period, individuals who take time out of the workforce also miss out on the wage increases they would have earned had they remained, which in turn reduces their retirement savings and social security benefits.

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These costs disproportionately fall on women, who often shoulder the bulk of caregiving responsibilities whether they want to or not. Pew Research Center data shows that 39 percent of surveyed mothers have taken a significant amount of time off to care for a family member, as opposed to 29 percent of fathers. This disparity may be linked to societal expectations around caregiving; one Pew survey found that 80 percent of respondents believed that young women with children should work part-time or drop out of the labor force; by contrast, 70 percent of these respondents believed that men with young children should work full-time.

These discriminatory attitudes stand in the way of more egalitarian caregiving arrangements and can discourage men from trying to balance the scale. For example, if I were a man, I would actually lose $30,000 more than a woman, according to the interactive. As the concept of a stay-at-home dad remains heavily stigmatized (only 4 percent of the Pew survey respondents saw it as ideal), men who have gaps in their resume due to caregiving are strongly discriminated against when they try to return to the workforce.

And so, rather than taking an absolute position about what is best for everyone, we should work to reduce the penalties associated with caregiving.

For some people, that will mean making child care more affordable. Right now the Center for American Progress notes that the average cost to have two children in a child care center is nearly $18,000 annually. As a result, many low-and-moderate income families are caught in a bind where they have to either accept that much of their earnings will be eaten up by child care expenses or stop work and take a huge hit to their current/future earnings.

But, we can’t stop at child care or elder care. Focusing solely on labor force participation obscures the very real ways that people contribute essential care work that isn’t compensated for within capitalism. One way of accounting for this in the context of retirement would be through enacting a Social Security caregivers credit. At present, the labor of individuals who exit the workforce to provide uncompensated care for a family member is not valued for Social Security purposes. A caregivers credit would ensure that care work is valued when calculating future Social Security benefits.

A more comprehensive solution to compensating care work would be to enact a Universal Basic Income (UBI), a policy where individuals receive an unconditional sum on a regular basis. As Judith Shulevitz has written in the New York Times, enacting a UBI would be a way to more appropriately account for labor that mothers and other caregivers currently provide for free.

We have all benefited from the care work of others, compensated or not. It’s time that our public policies accord that labor the respect and visibility it deserves.

Header image by Kainaz Amaria via NPR

Alyssa Peterson serves as a Campaign Coordinator for Know Your IX, a national survivor-run, student-driven campaign to end campus sexual violence.  

Alyssa Peterson serves as a volunteer Campaign Coordinator for Know Your IX.

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