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Who cares for New York City?

We are all, in a sense, caregivers. We cook, clean, wash dishes, water plants, change diapers, pet dogs and cats, call our grandparents, compost, recycle, hold open the subway door, attend emotional support groups, go for walks, write grocery lists, and, mostly, do our homework. These are all care duties.

Since many activities might be considered care, tackling the question in the title first requires defining care. Professor Joan Tronto (2015) proposes a broad definition. She posits that care is “everything we do to maintain, continue, and repair our world so that we may live in it as well as possible” (p. 3). In other words, care is about social reproduction and well-being. In the case of paid care work, economists Nancy Folbre & Kristin Smith (2017) add that care involves a spectrum of activities, and that it links givers and receivers in varied ways. Moreover, caregiving contact ca be indirect–e.g., a nurse might clean medical equipment in preparation for a direct care act, but not actually meet the patient.

Feminist scholars have long called attention to the inequities of care labor: women usually assume most of the care labor; care is underpaid or free ridden.  A great deal of this care is exercised through intangible practices of emotional labor, moral support, prayer, and acts of consideration, all of which typically go unnoticed or are dismissed as trivial.  Moreover, there is a special caregivers’ burden due to low salaries, the physical demands of the type of labor, and the overall social under recognition of care. Emma Dowling (2021) calls it The Care Crisis.

Using data from American Community Survey (ACS), the map below presents the percentage of workers in care industries for each of the 59 community districts in New York City. Out of 269 North American Industry Classification (NAICS) labels for identifying workers in the ACS, we define 48 that follow Tronto and Folbre’s definitions of care and thus can be regarded as care industries. The labels include retail industries, such as florists and specialty food stores; professional services, such as veterinaries; education, such as elementary schools and colleges; medical services, such as home health care services and nursing care facilities; entertainment industries, such as restaurants; and services, such as barber shops and beauty salons.

Darker regions have fewer workers in care sectors–we can regard these as “black holes” of care workers. The map illustrates two intriguing elements about the geographies of care in New York City. First, there is a high proportion of workers in care industries–43.3% overall. Second, there is an urban sprawl of caregivers. Downtown and Midtown Manhattan, the Northwest of Brooklyn, and the West of Queens have the lowest proportion of workers in care industries, and as one moves away from those areas, the proportion increases.

The American Community Survey data also reveals the gender gap in care labor in the City. Of 2,146,412 workers in care industries (the same 48 NAICS labels), 64% are women. The New York City Comptroller (2021) uses a narrower definition of care work (it only includes home health aides, personal care aides, nursing assistants, preschool and kindergarten teachers, and childcare workers– i.e. direct care workers–for a total of 254,760 workers) and reveals an even higher gender gap, where 89% are women.

Data: American Community Survey, 2022.

Lastly, the following figure illustrates another care inequity in New York: immigrant communities disproportionately assume care labor in the city. The scatter plot below presents the percentage of foreign-born population vs. the percentage of workers in care industries in each of the 59 community districts in 2022 (each is an “X”). The correlation is statistically significant and positive, meaning that as the proportion of the foreign-born population increases, the proportion of care workers does so, too.

Data: American Community Survey, 2022.

In summary, women and immigrants care for New York City. Six out of ten care workers are women, and in well-established immigrant communities such as Corona, Corona Heights, Elmhurst, and Lefrak City (Queens’ Community District 3), almost half of the workers (47.1%) are in care industries.

Works Cited

Dowling, E. (2021). The care crisis: What caused it and how can we end it? Verso Press.

Folbre, N., & Smith, K. (2017). The wages of care: Bargaining power, earnings and inequality. Working Paper Series. Washington Center for Equitable Growth and the Political Economy.

Tronto, J. C. (2015). Who cares? How to reshape a democratic politics. Cornell University Press.

Vasilyev, A. (2023). Spotlight: Care Workers and the New York City Economy. Department of the Comptroller, New York City.


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