The Economics of Caregiving for Working Mothers
Although Overwhelmingly Employed in Caregiving Industries, Women Cannot Afford Child Care
By Sarah Jane Glynn and Katie Hamm
A single mother picks up her children from day care in
Maryland on December 20, 2016
Authors’ note: CAP uses “Black” and “African American” interchangeably
throughout many of our products. We chose to capitalize “Black” in order to
reflect that we are discussing a group of people and to be consistent with
the capitalization of “African American.” For the other demographic groups
considered in this report, the authors defer to source language where
Introduction and summary
All across the nation—regardless of region and across a diversity of family
types, racial and ethnic groups, and ages of children—mothers are driving
forces of the American economy. Virtually all of the economic gains
experienced by the typical middle-class family since 1970, for example,
have been due to increases in women’s earnings. From 1970 to 2013,
women’s increased labor force participation and increased earnings grew
the U.S. economy by 13.5 percent, which translates into an additional $2
trillion in economic activity. Women, and mothers in particular, make up a
significant proportion of the labor force, and their employment and wages
are vital to the overall health of the labor market and the U.S. economy.
While the effects are enormous at the macro level of the economy, women’s and mother’s labor force participation and earnings are also
vital to the well-being of their individual families. Long gone are the days when the stereotypical working mother was employed part time,
after her children were all of school age and she was simply interested in bringing home pocket money to supplement her husband’s
earnings. To be clear: This “Leave It to Beaver” cliché was never accurate for wide swaths of the population, including women of color,
immigrant women, and working-class women, all of whom have historically been much more likely to work for pay than white middle-class
women. But it is even less true today, when 64 percent of mothers are the primary breadwinners or co-breadwinners in their households,
meaning that they earn a significant portion of their family’s income. Women of color, and Black women in particular, are especially likely to
play this role for their families. More than 8 in 10—84.4 percent—of Black mothers are breadwinners or co-breadwinners, as are 6 in 10—
60.3 percent—of Latinx mothers.
But parents of young children—and especially mothers, due to cultural norms and societal expectations—are only able to participate in the
labor force when they have access to work-family supports, including child care. The high cost of child care makes this especially difficult
for most families. In 2014, a low-income family earning less than $50,000 per year that made child care payments spent one-third of this
income on child care alone. Although the price of child care varies across the country and depending on the type of care being provided, all
but the highest-income families spend more than 7 percent of their annual household income on child care; percent is the federal
definition of affordability. The result is that often parents find themselves in an impossible bind: needing reliable child care so that they can
go to work but not earning enough money to easily afford the care their children need and deserve.
Child care is too often framed as an individual problem left up to parents to solve on their own, rather than as a public good. Parents, and
sometimes extended families, are tasked with figuring out how to arrange and pay for child care and generally must do so in the absence
of any meaningful public investment to help defray the cost. This approach ignores the important role that child care plays in the economy,
particularly the caregiving economy. It devalues caregiving and masks the fact that the economy, and society overall, can only function if
people keep going to work, something that can only happen if someone—be it a parent, family member, or paid caregiver—is providing
Working mothers are especially likely to be employed in industries centered around providing critical services and supports in
communities. This report explores the employment patterns of working mothers, concentrating on which industries are most likely to
employ mothers whose children are young enough to still require access to child care.
Working mothers are most likely to work in elementary and secondary education, within hospital settings, and in food service. These are
the jobs that affect the prospects of America’s future labor force and the health and well-being of communities, and they enable the
employment of other workers by supplementing work that would otherwise need to be done at home, such as preparing food, educating
children, and caring for ill or injured people. Yet median wages in these industries do not begin to cover the price of child care tuition at a
licensed center or home after taking into account other basic needs. Consider, for example, that the median yearly salary for a K-12
teacher in the United States is around $41,000. Meanwhile, the annual price of licensed child care is about $10,000 per child. For food
service workers—where Hispanic mothers are overrepresented—the median wage is less than $15,000 per year, which means that the
average licensed child care prices would consume two-thirds of wages.
It is not an exaggeration to argue that American society would not be able to function in its current state without the work being performed in
these industries, and a lack of affordable child care options threatens working mothers’ ability to continue providing these essential
functions. Supporting services that form the backbone of communities across the country and the U.S. economy requires further public
investment in child care.
Child care’s outsize influence on the lives of women
Child care responsibilities—whether performed as unpaid labor or the finding and arrangement of paid child care—are a form of
household labor that falls disproportionately on mothers, and has a far more pronounced influence on their wages and employment than
those of fathers. While child care responsibilities should be shared among all adult family members, the disparate impact on women and
women’s labor force participation warrants consideration of how access to child care can improve women’s lives and of the impact that
high child care costs have on women’s wages. Previous child care-related research has emphasized the impacts on maternal labor force
participation, employment, and wages. This report focuses on the industries in which mothers are more likely to be employed in order to
provide a clearer understanding of which industries are most affected by a lack of public investment in child care—and which industries
would likely benefit from such investments.
Maternal employment by industry
While the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey categorizes jobs into more than 250 industry categories, nationwide,
approximately 1 out of every 4 working mothers is employed in one of just three industries: elementary and secondary education,
hospitals, and food service. This pattern is consistent across nearly all races and ethnicities. (see Table 1)
A full 1 in 10 working mothers with a child under age 13 are employed in elementary and secondary education, with work in hospitals and
within food services following closely behind. Across all racial and ethnic groups, somewhere from roughly one-fifth to one-quarter of
working mothers with young children work in these three industries.
These industries reflect the backbone of U.S. communities, providing care and education as vital services. These are industries that are
known for employing mostly women, and they are also industries that either pay low wages, have significant gender wage gaps, or both.
They also require hours and schedules that are not necessarily conducive to traditional child care operating schedules. Food services
and hospitals in particular are known as industries in which working long hours late into the night or overnight are not uncommon, and
finding child care arrangements to accommodate these types of work hours can be challenging at best. Finding child care for
nontraditional hours of care often includes patching together multiple arrangements from one’s social network, since traditional child care
programs are generally closed and/or charge a premium in tuition costs.
Race and ethnicity
The demographics of working mothers of young children mirror those of all mothers of children under age 18. (see Figure 1) Likewise,
the most common industries in which mothers are employed are roughly the same across race and ethnicity, with some exceptions. For
example, the top industry for Black mothers is hospitals and the top industry for Hispanic mothers is food service. These patterns are
notable because they suggest that the jobs that are most likely to be unionized and come with benefits—such as those in elementary and
secondary schools—are most likely to be held by white mothers. And the jobs with the lowest pay, least predictable hours, and lowest
benefits—food service jobs—are disproportionately likely to be held by Hispanic mothers. Mothers of color in particular are also likely to
be overrepresented in other vital industries such as child care, home health care services and nursing facilities, and agriculture.
While white women make up the majority of
all mothers and also the majority of working
mothers of children under age 13, they are
overrepresented in elementary and
secondary schools, making up more than
80 percent of working mothers in this field.
Black, Asian and Pacific Islander, and
Hispanic mothers, as well as mothers who
identify as the “other” racial category, are all
underrepresented in the industry. Black
mothers, for example, make up 15 percent
of all working mothers with young children
but comprise less than 10 percent of those
working in elementary and secondary
The debate around the costs of child care, why it is so expensive, and who should bear the costs needs to be reframed. It must be
acknowledged as part of this discussion that when families lack access to affordable child care, it has a disproportionate negative effect
on working mothers. And this, in turn, has consequences for the industries where working mothers are overrepresented, thus affecting
the larger economy as well.
Because child care within families tends to fall primarily on mothers, it is not uncommon for families to in essence “do the math” and
decide that it is cheaper for women to exit the workforce or scale back on paid employment in order to provide unpaid child care within
the home. Although the long-term costs of exiting the labor force, even for a short period of time, compound over time and entail much
more than short-term lost wages, this is still a choice that many families feel pressured to make, especially when the prevailing wages
in the most common industries for working mothers are insufficient to cover child care costs. While the high cost of child care is not only
a women’s issue, the simple truth is that when families struggle to find and afford care, mothers are most likely to bear the burden and
suffer the consequences, including being less likely to be employed.
The labor force participation rate of mothers reached a peak of 73 percent in 2000 and has been stagnant or slightly declining ever since.
This pattern is likely to be at least partially due to a lack of work-family policies such as access to comprehensive paid family and
medical leave, paid sick days, affordable child care, and efforts to address the racial and gender wage gap—all policies that are more
common in countries that have not experienced the same decline in mothers’ labor force participation. Policies that reinforce workers’
right to join a union and negotiate wages and benefits across an industry can also improve wages; provide a platform for advocating for
better working conditions; and create a structure for advocating for policies that support working mothers, such as public funding for child
care. A number of states have recognized the rights of home care and child care workers who are providing support for clients funded
through government assistance to bargain collectively. The evidence suggests that the United States can reverse this trend and increase
women’s labor force participation, which will grow the economy and improve family economic security, by implementing similar
complementary policies that increase wages and address the challenges of managing work and family.
Given that white mothers tend to occupy industries and professions with higher wages and access to benefits, work-family policies must
be implemented with an intentionality toward racial equity, including ensuring that such policies and benefits are available to women of
color, who are more likely to hold lower-wage positions within industries dominated by working mothers. Otherwise, well-meaning
policies could have the unintended consequence of exacerbating existing gaps in compensation between non-Hispanic white women
and women of color.
One immediate step Congress can take is to pass the Child Care for Working Families Act, which would limit what families pay for child
care to 7 percent of household income, increase child care options with a particular focus on nontraditional hours, and boost
compensation and benefits for the early childhood workforce. An estimated 1.6 million lower-income mothers would reenter the paid
labor force as a result, and the average hourly wage for center-based child care workers—an occupation that is disproportionately
women of color—would increase by 26 percent nationally, from an average annual income of $26,000 to $33,000. Already, there is some
evidence of the positive relationship between improved child care access and increased labor force participation. Since Washington, D.
C., implemented universally available preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds in 2009, there has been a 10 percent increase in the maternal
labor force participation rate that can be attributed to preschool expansion.
In 2018, Congress provided much-needed funding for the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG), which has allowed states
to expand child care assistance to families and increase payment rates so that parents can choose from more child care options.
However, over a decade of chronic underfunding means that much more investment and reform is necessary before child care
assistance reaches all families who need it.
About the authors
Sarah Jane Glynn is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. Katie Hamm is the vice president for Early Childhood Policy at
The authors are grateful to Cristina Novoa for conducting the data analyses that form the basis of this report. Nada Ahmed and Steven
Jessen-Howard also provided valuable research support for this report. Karla Walter provided helpful feedback on previous drafts of this