'Care is a lifelong engagement': Ito Peng’s award-winning research is getting the world’s attention

May 4, 2023 by Cynthia Macdonald - A&S News

It was one of the biggest lessons of COVID-19: when our care system grinds to a halt, society soon follows.

At the height of the pandemic, millions of children were exiled from schools and daycares around the world — leading to urgent care needs that revealed serious gender gaps in households and workplaces. And on the life cycle’s other end, the massive toll of COVID-related deaths in long-term care homes, especially in Canada early on, demonstrated the extent to which society’s most vulnerable citizens are regularly endangered.

But none of this surprised Ito Peng, who began her intensive study of global care work long before 2020. A much sought-after researcher and consultant to governments and policymakers in multiple countries, Peng is a professor in the Department of Sociology in the Faculty of Arts & Science, as well as the Canada Research Chair in Global Social Policy and director of the Centre for Global Social Policy.

The importance of her knowledge-gathering on how care is administered — and how significant it is to world economies and people’s lives — cannot be overstated: without care work, no other work can take place.

A trailblazer in a field of crucial importance, it is only fitting that this year Peng was recently recognized with two significant University awards: the Carolyn Tuohy Impact on Public Policy Award and the President’s Impact Award.

Care work comes in many forms, both paid and unpaid. Peng broadly defines it as “work and relationships that are necessary for the health, welfare, maintenance and protection of all people — young and old, able-bodied, disabled and frail. Care at its core is a very basic human need and a necessity.”

Under her directorship, the Centre for Global Policy has undertaken three major multi-year projects since 2013. Together, these projects have made detailed empirical analyses of gender equality, care work, transnational care migration, and the interdependent relationship between the Global North and South through the migration of care workers.

The pandemic turbocharged interest in her work, which has attracted support from major American philanthropists such as the Hewlett and Open Society Foundations, as well as the World Bank, Oxfam and multiple agencies of the United Nations. “COVID has really shaken people, and made examination of the care economy so critical,” she says. “People now realize that this is a global issue. So many multilateral agencies are now saying, this is something we really need to work on.”

The statistics show why we need to pay attention to care. In Canada, the unpaid nature of much care work is difficult to measure, but it is said to represent up to a third of the GDP. In the United States, owing to rising demand from an aging population, paid care work is currently growing faster than any other occupational sector. And around the world, 75 per cent of unpaid home care is provided by women and girls, which in many cases severely limits their labour force participation.

Armed with data derived from sophisticated macroeconomic models, Peng has been able to make differences in the lives of care workers and improve policy in the countries where they live: “In whatever we do,” she says of her team, “we really want to help facilitate change. Just doing research is not enough.”

One place she’s done that is South Korea, which recently faced a care crisis when workers began leaving the profession in droves due to low pay. “There, we felt it was important to connect with key ministries — not just those connected with gender and family, but with finance and economic planning as well,” Peng says.

Workers themselves had been protesting loudly, to no avail. But government authorities intervened when Peng and her team presented them with a sophisticated modelling analysis demonstrating that their economy would grow if they did so. “We showed them it would be in their interest to raise wages. And so they did,” she says.

Most of us have a personal interest in care work, and Peng is no exception. Her two children were born in Japan, where she worked early in her career and was able to benefit from the country’s generous national child care policy. Returning to Canada while her children were still young, however, she experienced first-hand the difficulties with Canada’s lack of a coherent child care system: “It made me realize how crucial care was, both for my children and myself,” she says.

Recently, the federal government instituted the Early Learning and Child Care (ELCC) plan, with a goal of reducing fees to $10 a day by 2026. It’s something Peng applauds, although she says that our governments need to develop strong policies with regard to other care needs too — particularly as they pertain to elderly people in a rapidly aging population.

“The ELCC is a really good first step. But we have to think of it as the beginning of a much longer journey,” Peng says. “This is just a start. Because care is a lifelong engagement. It’s about lifelong interdependencies: between generations, between people, family and community. And across the globe, especially when you see the migration of many care workers. We need to look at it as a very large ecosystem — one that supports and underpins our health, but also our economic and social well-being.”