I’m hardly the first to point out the connection between “women’s issues” and the economy. Slate’s Jordan Weissmann, for instance, recently wrote an excellent piece emphasizing the economic benefits of affordable child care. But still, policies that affect mothers’ ability to work are too often framed as being mainly about fairness, feminism, personal fulfillment and family bonding.
They are indeed all these things. But they also address a pressing macroeconomic concern. In the long run, if we want to boost economic output and productivity, we need our policymakers to focus less on trickle-down tax cuts and more on why so many American women who want to work aren’t.
A few decades ago, the United States was a leader in women’s labor-force participation. For women considered to be of prime working age (25 to 54 years old), the United States ranked sixth out of 22 wealthy economies in 1990. By 2017, we ranked 20th.
Even Japan — a country not exactly known for progressive gender roles — is eating our lunch. There, thanks to a national effort to take greater advantage of women’s economic potential (“womenomics”), 77.5 percent of prime-age women are in the labor force as of 2017, vs. 75 percent here.
Why does this matter?
An economy is only as strong as its workers, and the share of our population in the workforce is shrinking. In fact, one of the main reasons U.S. economic growth is almost universally expected to slow dramatically — despite what you may have heard from Trump tax-cut cheerleaders — in the coming years is precisely this demographic issue.
As the population ages, a growing share of retirees must depend on a shrinking share of working people to produce the goods and services that retirees consume. There will also be a smaller share of working-age people available to fund the tax base needed for retirees’ public benefits, such as Medicare.
One solution, of course, is more immigration of working-age people. But regardless of whether we do that, we should also make it easier and more attractive for members of the existing working-age population to, you know, work.
The problem doesn’t seem to be that American women, or even mothers specifically, are uninterested in working. A Pew Research Center survey found that 79 percent of women with minor children would like to be working at least part time as of 2012, whereas only 68 percent were actually employed in the latest Labor Department data.
The problem is that they don’t have the support system necessary to help them stay attached to the labor force. An oft-cited paper from Cornell University economists Francine D. Blau and Lawrence M. Kahn estimated that if the United States implemented family support policies about equal in generosity to the average across other developed countries, women’s labor-force participation would rise nearly seven percentage points.
Such policies include paid family leave.
You may have heard the talking point that the United States is the only industrialized nation that doesn’t mandate paid maternity leave. That actually understates the case. As of 2015, the United States was one of only a handful of countries in the world that didn’t mandate paid maternity leave at the federal level, according to a report from the International Labor Organization.
Paid maternity leave — and its broader, more ecumenical version, paid family leave — is quite popular, drawing support from majorities of both Democrats and Republicans. It’s no wonder, then, that GOP politicians are proposing their own versions of the idea. Ivanka Trump met with GOP lawmakers this week to re-up the issue, and a version of the policy she backed last year is expected to be reintroduced soon.
I’m not a fan of Trump’s specific policy formulation, which involves having parents finance their family leave by raiding their own Social Security benefits. But I’m hopeful nonetheless that lawmakers will seriously consider other iterations, including those already implemented by a handful of states that have been linked to higher worker productivity and lower turnover.
I’m hopeful, too, that in the months ahead, other pro-work, pro-women policies — including greater access to child care and flexible scheduling — will gain traction not just as bleeding-heart fantasies but as hard-headed ways to strengthen the economy overall.