JOBS ARE scarce. Last month, 10.3 million people were looking for work, 2 million more than a year earlier. In a recent speech, President Reagan suggested that one reason unemployment is so high is that more women are seeking jobs. The numbers don't support that assertion--most of those currently unemployed are men, and this recession, unlike downturns in the past, has put more than twice as many men as women out of work. Still, it is true that women have entered the labor force in record numbers over the past decade, and there is a surface plausibility to the notion that if they had just stayed home there would be more jobs for men.
Employment, however, is not a zero-sum game in which one person's gain is inevitably another's loss. The 12 million women who entered the labor force during the 1970s added enormously to the goods and services produced by the economy and the incomes of families. This, in turn, stimulated economic growth and more jobs for others. The lower wages typically received by women--irrespective of whether or not they should be lower--helped to restrain inflationary pressures, payroll taxes on women's wages helped shore up the Social Security trust funds and their contributions to family income eased adjustment to the unemployment that accompanied the structural changes the economy is experiencing.
It is clear that women's jobs are important to them and to their families. The great majority of women work because the income they earn is needed. True, the American family's idea of "need" has escalated along with average incomes, and having a working mother can create stress and strain in family life. But these are choices for families to make for themselves, and many of the "luxuries" now within reach of the average family, such as higher education for children, are important investments for the society.
A lot of people nowadays are arguing that government ought to intervene to stabilize and support the traditional family--that configuration of folks in which the father provided the sole support of wife and children. If there is a legitimate government role in this traditionally private area, it is surely in assuring that no family is driven apart by the breadwinner's inability to find a job and the anachronisms of welfare policy. Beyond this the case for interference is exceedingly weak. Both the income tax --even with recent amendments--and Social Security still favor the one- earner family at any income level. Despite that favoritism, more and more women are choosing to work, and the economy is richer for their choice.