Women’s Work and The Decline of American Communities

In 2020, the US finds itself in a crisis of trust. Division, not unity, is the norm. Isolation, depression, anxiety, and hatred are creating a toxic and vulnerable society. This cultural vulnerability is being exploited by those who benefit from it — foreign adversaries, the wealthiest 1%, and unscrupulous politicians.

What happened?

There are a lot of different analyses of this, many looking at global economic and technology trends — but I think those are accelerants and not the core problem. I want to offer an alternative perspective.

From 1950 to 2000, the percentage of women in the paid workforce nearly doubled — from 33% to 60%, which is a massive shift in labor. This was originally driven by the women’s movement and the opportunities opened up for women to go to college for the first time. College degrees allowed women to aspire to paid work that was more financially rewarding than simply offsetting work at home by doing similar work as a maid or nanny for someone else.

This is my family’s story. My grandmother, who never completed grade school, worked as a maid until she got married at 18 and had six children, which as a farm family helped support their small business. My mother received a state scholarship as her high school’s valedictorian, allowing her to get a college degree. There she met my father and they moved away from their rural childhood homes, in search of meaningful work opportunities. They eventually ended up in Cambridge, MA where I spent the majority of my childhood surrounded by a highly educated and professional population. That led my brother to Princeton and me to Mount Holyoke and off to professional careers. In two generations, my family’s economic and social circumstances changed dramatically.

But it did something else. It changed the women’s work in my family from community work to paid professional work. My grandmother did not actually work less than I do (not by a long shot) but the type of work changed. Less cooking for crowds, watching toddlers, visiting older members of the community, writing letters, checking in on people, contributing to church and community groups, and more sitting in meetings, writing, accounting, and other ‘office’ work.

By the 1960s, women finally had more opportunity to get paid for their work — and so they did more of the work they could get paid for and less of the work for which they were not paid. That was amazing progress in equity but it came with consequences for our communities. Fewer church lunches, school events, women visiting the sick and elderly, and fewer people at home to provide loose oversight to neighborhood children, homework help, people noticing what was happening on their street, gardens, and more. Less community service and management.

Today, the U.S. population is 331 million. For simplicity’s sake assume 50% are women and multiply that times the percentage of women in the workforce, which is 58% before the drop for COVID. Let’s say for simplicity that it is twice the rate of women in the workforce in 1950. That means that there are roughly 48 million more women working today than would have been working outside the home in the economy of the 1950s.

For the sake of argument, let’s say that every woman who didn’t do paid work did an average of 1 hour of community service/community management work every week. I think that is likely low but it makes for a good baseline assumption. The average hourly wage for paid community management in 2020 was $40.50, from our Community Careers and Compensation research at The Community Roundtable. That is $101 billion of value.

$101 billion of annual value is not being invested in our communities that was being invested in 1950, by women whose work was not seen or valued in financial terms. A commensurate amount has been extracted from our communities every year for decades. In Black communities that investment gap has been going on for centuries because Black women, first because of slavery and then because of economic and systemic inequities, have always had to work outside the home. This lack of community investment has resulted in communities with less cohesion and more of the associated issues it causes — but with the added social judgment because historically we have not recognized the value of that work or rewarded it financially.

Our biggest cultural issues — division, isolation, anxiety, depression — are driving hatred, violence, abuse, addiction, and related health issues like obesity. To address those issues requires significant investments in mental health, addiction treatment, and policing. To make matters worse, treating the symptoms is also often ineffective because they stem from behavioral problems that have compounded over years and are only treated once they reach a crisis point due to the expense and scarcity of treatment capacity.

What we have found in our online community work is that you can either invest in community management and community service work on the front end — creating healthy relationships, behaviors, and trust — or you have to expend excessive resources on the back end trying to ‘fix’ socially normalized behaviors while still not addressing the root trust and anxiety that is generating them.

We are starting to see things change. My daughter’s school has a Director of Community Life and my local government has invested in roles responsible for community health, equity, and inclusion. But we have yet to reconcile and connect the systemic extraction of community value over the last century.

This is a big part of why my focus has been on quantifying the value of community models — because until we can see the financial value of communities, we will not invest in them and we will continue to suffer and spend much more on trying to fix the impact of poor communities.

The value of community engagement and service comes in the form of bringing food to new parents, checking in on the sick, organizing a block party, and exchanging flower plants at garden club meetings. These are the social objects of relationships and trust. On the surface, each one is a small drop in the bucket and can not be discretely quantified. Collectively, however, the ability of people to collaborate, exchange, and share builds immense wealth — even if all of that wealth is not financial.

What we’ve found at The Community Roundtable is that when people collaborate and share the output of that collaboration with a community, value is maximized and compounds with each individual who benefits from it.

I often volunteer to help put on an art show at my daughter’s school. Hundreds of parents volunteer just a little time. Together that creates a curated art show covering every wall and surface of the school with the art of each class from the entire year — 4 or 5 projects for each child in the school, all tagged and creatively displayed with care. The average parent contributes only an hour or two of their time but together it produces something that would cost tens of thousands of dollars to produce otherwise. Because of the care in exhibiting the art, each of the hundreds of kids in the school sees their work valued. The art show treats them like artists — so they feel like and are empowered to be artists. What is that empowerment and motivation worth to a parent? Everything — it cannot be measured. However, we can calculate how the collective efforts of the community offset tens of thousands of dollars that would have otherwise been required to produce the show — and that we can measure and account for and it is considerable. Crowdsourced value that is shared instead of squandered by individuals. That has real power.

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