Girls between 16 and 19 are losing out on an opportunity by spending between 30 and 45 minutes more a day than their male counterparts on family care and unpaid domestic labor, according to a recent report from the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution.
“It is much more common for it to be teen girls than teen boys [doing] what we call ‘home production,’” said Jay Shambaugh, an economist at George Washington University and director of the Hamilton Project.
“So you could see that in some sense crowding out their opportunities to do homework, [or] to be engaged in other activities in school.”
That was the story of Lisbet Rivas-Ruiz’s teenage years in Corvallis, Oregon. Her parents immigrated from Mexico in the 1980s and worked multiple jobs on multiple shifts: farm work, construction, housekeeping, factory, and custodial work.
“I’m not the oldest, but I am the oldest girl,” said Rivas-Ruiz, who’s now 26 and the second of four children.
“You’re expected to do certain things — lookout after your siblings, take them to school early in the mornings, help with their homework, mopping, cleaning, just doing chores around the house.”
She was 6 years old when she started taking on some responsibility for caring for her infant younger brother. She took on more responsibility when her sister was born four years later.
Like many children of immigrants, Rivas-Ruiz also had to help her parents navigate life in their adopted homeland.
“As early as the middle school they started saying, ‘Oh, well, you know the language better than we do. Hey, can you make this phone call for the doctors? Come with me to the doctor’s appointment? Hey, what does this paper say? We’re trying to buy a house.’”
Sitting in the kitchen of the house they bought nearly 20 years ago in Corvallis, Lisbet’s mother, 50-year-old Adela Ruiz, said it was hard to leave her eldest daughter with the burden of taking care of younger siblings, but there was no alternative.
“I couldn’t do anything else,” she said. “I had to earn money to support them and not let them down.”
Homework came after housework for Lisbet, which didn’t leave time for after-school jobs or other activities.
“I loved sports growing up,” she said. “But as I grew up and the demands were higher at home, there’s not a lot of opportunities even to play a sport.”
None of that held Lisbet Rivas-Ruiz back, though: She graduated high school with good grades and attended the University of Oregon on a scholarship. She earned money for room and board by working at a childcare center.
She said the domestic labor she did as an adolescent helped to push her into higher education.
“It was all the things that you have to do: translate, help with the kids,” she said. “I was kind of like, ‘No, I need an escape,’ and [college] was my escape. It was a good escape because it got me further, but it wasn’t easy.”
Things have been somewhat easier for her younger sister, Yesenia. She’s now 16, a junior in high school. The family is better off economically; the parents are about to pay off their mortgage. Yessenia has fewer chores than Lisbet did, and no younger siblings to take care of.
“I just mostly focus on my schoolwork and all that,” said Yesenia. “What I really like to do is dancing, traditional Mexican dancing.” She said she doesn’t want to work during the school year in order to focus on her studies. She’s planning to go to college like her older sister and brother.
“A while back ago, I worked during the summer for a blueberry farm,” she said. “And it was very intense, sometimes the sun was really hot. After that, I started volunteering at a summer school. It works with kindergarten up to sixth grade, and I enjoyed it a lot more.”
But not every family is doing as well as the Rivas-Ruizes.
The Hamilton Project study paints a much darker picture for the 1 in 10 teenagers who are neither in school nor working. Lisbet Rivas-Ruiz sees the problems they face every day in her work as an addiction counselor at Centro Latino Americano in Eugene, Oregon.
“They’re dealing with substance use — may be both parents, maybe one parent,” she said. Sometimes, she said, teenagers at the center end up saying, “Hey, I have to stay home because I have to babysit. Like, literally stay home. I can’t go to school.”
The report found that women between 16 and 24 who are neither working nor in school spend about 20 hours per week doing unpaid household labor; three times as much as young men in the same situation and age group.