The Temporal Constraints of Child Care

mother and daughterTime-use surveys measure the number of hours devoted to care of family and friends, making it possible to estimate what it would cost to purchase an approximate substitute for them. Such a “replacement cost” estimate of adult care services in the U.S. featured in my last post. However, most time-use surveys continue to emphasize time in specific activities–like feeding or bathing, ignoring other temporal constraints such as the need to simply “be available” or “on call” in case someone needs supervision or assistance. This supervisory constraint is particularly binding with infants and young children, who cannot safely be left alone, even when sleeping, but it is also relevant to care of adults with serious health problems.

Fortunately, the American Time Use Survey includes a question that asked respondents to indicate times when a child under the age of 13 was “in your care.” This makes it possible to measure the amount of time devoted to supervisory child care. Even a very conservative estimate (ignoring time when the caregiver was asleep and excluding supervisory time that overlapped with active care) has a huge quantitative impact–increasing total child care time by more than an average factor of FIVE for the period 2003-2012.

Even when supervisory time is valued at the federal minimum wage (which is less than many babysitters earn), including it as a component of the imputed monetary value of non-market work has an amplifying effect. Along with some other, smaller adjustments, it increases the imputed value of non-market work in the U.S. from about 26% to about 43% of Gross Domestic Product, conventionally measured.

For more details, see my article co-authored with Jooyeoun Suh, “Valuing Unpaid Child Care in the U.S.: A Prototype Satellite Account Using the American Time Use Survey,” forthcoming in the Review of Income and Wealth, and currently available on-line at that journal.

Note that inclusion of supervisory time here means that these estimates of the value of child care are not directly comparable with estimates of the value of adult care described in my previous post. Jooyeoun Suh and I are working this and related issues for the U.S.

For a fascinating estimate of the monetary value of both unpaid child care and elder care in another country, see Jayoung Yoon’s recent article “Counting Care Work in Social Policy: Valuing Unpaid Child- and Eldercare in Korea,” in Feminist Economics.




Posted July 22, 2015

Thanks to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for use of the beautiful photo of mother and child above, used for “Take Your Child to Work” day in 2012 and made available to the public through a Creative Commons license. It seems pretty apt for a post emphasizing that taking care of children IS work.


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