1963-2013 - 50 years of Research for Social Change

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Back | Programme Area: Special Events (2000 - 2009)

Time Use and Poverty (Draft)



This paper draws on the analysis of time use survey data done under UNRISD’s The Political and Social Economy of Care project to examine links between time use and poverty and, in particular, between unpaid care work and poverty. The project focuses on six developing countries spanning three continents. In each of the continents, the focus countries include one that has more developed care/welfare infrastructure and one that is less developed. Thus in Asia the two countries are the Republic of Korea and India, in Africa they are South Africa and Tanzania, and in Latin America they are Argentina and Nicaragua.

One of the criteria for country selection was that a time use survey had been conducted fairly recently in the country. (In the case of Argentina, this survey covered only the City of Buenos Aires, and thus much of the discussion below relates only to the City.) Time use surveys differ from standard labour force surveys in that they ask respondents to report on all activities done in a specified period, such as a day or a week. In contrast, labour force surveys focus only on the forms of work that classify a person as ‘employed’ and that are utilised in estimations of gross domestic product (GDP).

Time use surveys tell us how much time an average person from particular social groups (such as male or female, young or old, rich or poor) spend in an average day or week on sleeping, eating, doing employment-related work, socialising, and doing unpaid care work such as housework and caring for children, the disabled, elderly and ill, etc. These surveys thus provide a good basis for discussing unpaid care work, and in exploring how responsibility for unpaid care work interacts with performance of other activities such as income-earning, as well as how performance of unpaid work varies along a range of individual and social characteristics.

The interest in unpaid care work from a poverty perspective lies firstly in the interplay of paid work and unpaid care work, in that the burden and time and locational restrictions of unpaid care work might prevent particular groups from earning as much as they might otherwise. The combined burden of paid work and unpaid care work also limits the time that those providing care have for self-care, rest and leisure. Thus across all six countries covered by UNRISD’s Care Project, the average time spent by women on paid and unpaid work combined is greater than the average time spent by men. This means that the average time spent by women on “non-productive activities” (learning, social and cultural activities, mass media use, and personal care and self-maintenance) is less than the average time spent by men. The locational restrictions of unpaid care work meanwhile limit the extent to which caregivers can engage in public life and decision-making.

In addition, the fact that unpaid care work contributes to well-being raises the question as to how it should be factored into measures of poverty if we understand poverty as extending beyond a simple monetary measure. For example, if we adopt a human development approach that factors health and educational access or achievement into the measure of poverty, do we not need to factor in the contributions that unpaid care work make to health and education (or cognitive development)? This raises the issue of what happens when insufficient care is available. It suggests that while on one hand the need to do unpaid care work may limit the possibilities of engaging in income-earning activities and thus increase poverty, on the other hand the need to engage in income-earning activity may restrict the amount of time available for unpaid care work, and thus diminish the well-being of household members unless enough is earned to afford paid alternatives (for example, domestic workers, crèche, take-out food, laundromats) to substitute for unpaid care work. There is thus a two-way interaction between unpaid care work and poverty.