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A public policy blog from AEI
The “Idle Army” of unworking men, as AEI scholar Nicholas Eberstadt called them, has received well-deserved attention over the past year, but women leaving the labor market has become a problem as well. After five decades of increases, the share of women in the labor market today is at the lowest level since 1988 (see chart below).
A new report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics on women in the labor force offers a glimpse into the progress women have made, but also some problems. On a positive note:
Over time, women have increasingly attained higher levels of education: among women ages 25 to 64 who are in the labor force, the proportion with a college degree more than tripled from 1970 to 2015, increasing from 11 percent to 41 percent. Women’s earnings as a proportion of men’s earnings also have grown over time. In 1979, women working full time earned 62 percent of what men earned; in 2015, women’s earnings were 81 percent of men’s.
But less encouraging:
Women reached the peak of their labor force participation in 1999, with a rate of 60.0 percent. Since then, labor force participation among women has declined, to 56.7 percent in 2015.
Women remain both less likely to be in the labor force and less likely to work at least half the year than their male counterparts. And while it is well known that women have higher poverty rates compared to men, even among those who work at least half the year, women are more likely to be in poverty, although this is mostly true for women of color (see chart below).
Marital status and presence of children contribute to these trends, and unmarried women with children are more likely to be in the labor market than their married counterparts. But still only 75% of unmarried mothers are in the labor force, suggesting that efforts to increase their labor force participation could be helpful.
A larger share of mothers in recent years say they prefer working at least part-time than in the past.
Why does the declining participation of women in the labor force receive less attention than men? Perhaps it is assumed that they prefer not working in favor of childrearing. But this seems unlikely given that a larger share of mothers in recent years say they prefer working at least part-time than in the past. Pew Research found that from 2007-2012 the share preferring no work at all fell from 29% to 20%.
Similarly, trends in female labor force participation in the US are inconsistent with other developed countries, causing concern among some economists. As economist Maximiliano Dvorkin of the St. Louis Federal Reserve wrote in 2015:
With the exception of Sweden, the [labor force participation] rates for women have rapidly increased and the dispersion of rates across countries has decreased. More recently, though, in the United States and Sweden, the rates have remained fairly constant or even decreased somewhat. Until the mid- 1990s, the United States had one of the highest labor force participation rates for woman in this age group [25-54]; it now has one of the lowest.
The official poverty rate for adult, non-elderly women in 2015 was 14.2% compared to 10.5% for men, and women make up 60% of non-elderly adults in poverty. Lagging labor force participation compared to their male counterparts is likely a major contributing factor.
None of this suggests that increasing male employment is not important, but boosting employment among women, including those with children, is equally critical. While nonworking men and women face many of the same issues, women also face unique challenges that require different public policy solutions.
Work supports including family friendly government and private sector policies, such as flexible work schedules, child care assistance, and time off after the birth of a child can benefit both men and women, but may have larger effects on women. If we hope to increase the economic security of American families, increasing female labor force participation must be part of the solution.
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