Help Women Work to Bolster Our Economy

Janet Yellen, chair of the Federal Reserve, keeps a close eye on the United States economy. One of the concerns of the Federal Reserve since the Great Recession (officially 2007–2009) has been the sluggish rate of overall economic growth in the United States, which impacts the well-being of all of us. In a recent speech, reported by Binyamin Appelbaum of the New York Times, Chair Yellen said that policies making it easier for women to work could significantly improve the nation’s economic growth. She suggests three policy areas that would make it easier for women to participate in the labor market:

  • Expand the availability of paid leave.
  • Make affordable child care available.
  • Make flexible work schedules more available.
Yellen notes that raising women’s participation in the workforce to the same level as men’s could increase annual economic output by 5 percent. The fact is that, since the early 1990s, women’s level of participation in the workforce has been falling in the United States. Appelbaum notes that a recent study by Francine D. Blau and Lawrence M. Kahn, both of Cornell University, found that the United States has fallen to seventeenth place out of twenty-two developed nations in women’s workplace participation. The researchers attribute the decline in workforce participation by women to a lack of government policies. They suggest that the United States should adopt European policies on paid leave and affordable child care to close the employment gap. Yellen noted in her speech that we are squandering “the potential of many of our citizens and (will) incur substantial loss to the productive capacity of our economy” if we do not make it easier for women to work. Why don’t we have the same level of government support for working women and men in the United States as is available in Europe? Claire Cain Miller of the New York Times  notes that while Americans agree that paid family leave should be available to workers to take care of a new baby or a sick family member, we cannot agree on who should pay for it, or whether it should be mandatory or voluntary. Miller cites a recent Pew Foundation report showing that 94 percent of Americans say paid leave would help families, 65 percent say that paid leave would help the economy, and 67–87 percent support paid leave being available. However, Miller notes that Americans are torn about gender roles and also about whether paid leave should be a government mandate or offered voluntarily by businesses. She notes that
  • Some Americans feel a massive distrust of mandatory government policies; 69 percent of Democrats support a government mandate for paid leave, while only 33 percent of Republicans do.
  • US culture shows deep ambivalence about gender roles; a majority of Republicans feel it is not in the best interest of families for women to work outside of the home.
Unfortunately, the people who most need to work are the most affected by the lack of government policies that support working families. Low-income workers (including women, blacks, Hispanics, and those without a college degree) are often thrown into poverty when a baby is born or a family member is ill and the worker must take time off. Workers lose income and also can lose their jobs. Workers, families, and our economy will all benefit from mandated family leave and the availability of affordable child care. The United States is the only industrialized country that does not mandate paid leave. Shame on us. We must find the will to do this for the greater good. What are your thoughts?   Photo courtesy of Katrinaelsl. CC by-nd 2.0]]>

Joblessness and the “Care Chasm”: Why Women Drop Out of the Workforce

There was a lot of focus on a dearth of middle-class jobs for men in the United States during the recent presidential election. This discussion centered on the loss of good-paying manufacturing and mining jobs for men, which have been in decline since the 1960s due to automation and globalization. Not much attention has been paid, however, to the declining number of women in the US workforce. This trend is the opposite of trends in women’s employment in other industrialized countries. What explains this difference for women in the United States? While the decline in workforce participation for working-class men began in the 1960s, the slide for women’s participation did not begin until the early 2000s. Patricia Cohen of the New York Times explains that the drop in women’s workforce participation occurred for different reasons than it did for men. During this period, women have been earning college degrees in greater numbers; also, service sector jobs, where women are traditionally concentrated, have been growing. So why have women been dropping out of the workforce? Cohen notes that we do not have the family support policies in the United States that other industrialized countries have. In fact, here “women are still the primary caregivers—for children, aging parents, and ailing relatives.” Women often cite caregiving responsibility as the reason they are unable to hold on to unstable and inflexible jobs. Cohen cites economist Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute, who reports, “Hardly any men who have dropped out say it is because they are helping with children or other family members.” Eberstadt goes on to note that a “care chasm” explains the stark contrast between women’s workforce participation in the United States and their participation rate in Europe. He explains that European countries with comprehensive family support policies have seen women’s labor force participation go up since 2000, while ours has plummeted. We need to demand that our legislators support policies for affordable child care, paid family leave, elder care support, and a living wage in the United States. Family support policies are good for all of us and for our economy.   Photo courtesy of Univ. of Salford. CC by 2.0    ]]>