Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Government demographers have rolled out the results of a bold new effort to catalog the American life. The data from the first-ever time-use studies by the Department of Labor are now available. This is a grand step forward in the ability to measure how days are spent in this country and will be a trove of information. Eventually.

The problem with a first-ever data set such as the Bureau of Labor Statistics' effort is that there is nothing to compare it to, no historical baseline to check to see if we're doing better (or worse) than we were a year or two or ten before.

The main finding of the research -- at least according to the BLS's press release and the early New York Times account -- is that there remains a gap between caregiving done by men and done by women, with women working about and hour and a three-quarters a day caregiving, while men clock in at 50 minutes. Household tasks are similarly disproportionate. The Times notes that the study "does confirm that the old divisions of labor between men and women at least partly remain."

In a way, it's too bad that the message from this data dump will be that men continue to lag women in caregiving, a finding that no one, frankly, finds surprising. The impressive trend in other time-use studies that do have some historical context (namely work from the University of Maryland) is that men's contribution to household activities has more than doubled since the 1960s. Sure, we're lagging women, but we're closing the gap. The BLS data can't show that. I don't mean to suggest that the work they've done thus far isn't worthy of comment, but I'd be very cautious about making sweeping conclusions based on this snapshot.

(Thanks to Christine at Ms. musings for the tip.)

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