Q&A: Jessica Calarco on ‘how women became America’s safety net’

CHICAGO — Compared with its economic peers, the United States lacks social safety net programs like sick time, vacation time and health care. For decades, American women have filled the gaps, to the detriment of themselves and their families, according to sociologist Jessica Calarco.

Calarco, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, studies inequalities in family life and education. She is also the author of “Holding It Together: How Women Became America’s Safety Net,” published last month.

More than two-thirds of Americans’ unpaid caregiving work — valued at $1 trillion annually — is done by women, according to an analysis by the National Partnership for Women & Families based on 2023 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Calarco discusses her book and explains why women in the U.S. bear the brunt of prohibitively expensive high-quality daycare, limited government assistance and inaccessible paid maternal leave in the wake of the pandemic and beyond. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

A: The gist of the book is that other countries have invested in social safety nets as a way to help people manage risk.

In the U.S., we’ve instead tried to DIY society. We left it up to individual people to manage risk on their own, as opposed to allowing them to rely on a social safety net. And in practice, that means keeping taxes low, especially on wealthy people and corporations, cutting regulations and really underinvesting in the kinds of time and resources that people would need to be able to participate more actively in care. But the problem is that we can’t actually DIY society. That’s too much risk for individuals and families to manage on their own. What I show in the book is that families and communities have been able to weather this shift in American policy primarily by relying on women to be the ones to hold it together.

A: Being the default caregivers for kids and for the elderly, and for people who are sick, or destitute in our society. And then on the other side of the equation, also filling in gaps in our economy. Women hold 70% of the lowest wage jobs in our economy. And they’re also the ones who disproportionately hold underpaid jobs at every sort of level of education that they might have. Things like child care, things like home health care, things like even K-12 teaching. We structure our economy and we structure our society in ways that push women into doing that work and then underpay them for that labor in ways that trap them in that system of exploitation, in similar ways to what we do at home. And this is deeply damaging for women and for families in terms of the cost that it has for their well-being, for their stress levels, for their economic parity.

A: During World War II, while we had millions of men fighting in battle, we realized all of a sudden in the country that we needed women in the workforce in a way that we never had before.

And so at the time, Congress actually, with some pushes from a couple of women who had high profile positions in government, set up a universal child care program, set up national child care centers across the U.S., used defense spending through the Lanham Act to do so.

We saw this massive increase in women’s employment during the war. At the end of the war, those women almost universally wanted to keep their jobs — they wanted to stay in the paid workforce. But the easiest short term thing to do for the economy, once men were coming back and wanted their jobs back, was to push women back home. And this is not what many of our peer countries did. Other countries, like France, used this as a moment to completely restructure their economies, to build national permanent child care programs that allowed women to stay in the economy.

A: It became very apparent very quickly how much of an impact Covid was having, particularly on families with young children and especially the moms within those families who were often pushed into these kinds of default caregiver roles.

During the pandemic, I talked to so many moms who described things like hiding in the bathroom, eating sleeves of Oreos to cope with the stress of having to work from home while also caring for their kids full time.

It’s a double edged sword in the sense that on the one hand, having access to remote work can be tremendously beneficial for moms in that it allows them to be in the workforce and to have an income in ways that if they’re dealing with a child care crisis and the only option that they have is to work for pay in-person or on site, that could push them out of the workforce very easily. But the challenge is that remote work is not a great substitute for child care.

And then the other kind of unfortunate piece of the data … is that women actually face a higher penalty for using things like remote work options than men do, because they’re assumed to be using it for child care or other types of caregiving reasons. They are discounted by their employers and penalized for taking these kinds of remote work options, passed over for opportunities for promotion, for example, and seen as less committed, even when men are taking the exact same opportunities.


The Associated Press’ women in the workforce and state government coverage receives financial support from Pivotal Ventures. AP is solely responsible for all content. Find AP’s standards for working with philanthropies, a list of supporters and funded coverage areas at AP.org.

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