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Haskins / Sawhill Moynihan Prize: The Family Inequality file


Sawhill and Haskins (photo collage from Brookings)

The American Academy of Political and Social Science gives the Moynihan Prize each year to:

recognize social scientists and other leaders in the public arena who champion the use of informed judgment to advance the public good. The Moynihan Prize is intended to honor those who, like the late Senator, have promoted the use of sound analysis and social science research in policy-making, while contributing to the civility of public discourse and pursuing a bipartisan approach to society’s most pressing problems.

This year’s winners are Ron Haskins and Isabel Sawhill, longtime fellows at the Brookings Institution, specializing in poverty policy. Now that classes are over I’m going to head downtown to hear their speeches.

Both have appeared frequently on the pages of Family Inequality. Looking back at that record, I see that I’ve been pretty negative. Here are the highlights, in chronological order:

Four-out-of-five myths about America: During the economic crisis, Haskins and Sawhill say giving poor families more money is a mistake.

How many Black scholars does it take to have any Black scholars?: Haskins dismissal of Kathryn Edin’s research based on anecdotes from his personal experience annoys me. (Also, no Black scholars at a conference with a family inequality theme.)

Blame the poor, “We tried generosity and it just doesn’t work” edition: I accuse Haskins of spreading the “stupid and evil” meme that all the money we’ve spent on poor people didn’t “work” because we still have poverty.

A few ways Isabel Sawhill is wrong on single mothers: I argue that Sawhill misrepresents the research record as she reflects on the 50th anniversary of the Moynihan Report.

No, poverty is not a mysterious, unknowable, negative-spiral loop: I criticize Haskins (and the “consensus plan” to address poverty) for ignoring the obvious implications of the history of Social Security: when you give people money, they’re not poor anymore.

How about we stop moralizing and end child poverty tomorrow?: I object to Sawhill’s idea that poverty results from people having children before they are “financially or emotionally ready.”

US policy fails at reducing child poverty because it aims to fix the poor: I fault Haskins for his rosy view of welfare reform, and his view that “mothers on welfare, even those with young children, should be encouraged, cajoled, and, when necessary, forced to work.”

Delayed parenting and anti-poverty policy: While supporting greater access to reproductive healthcare, I raise doubts about the policy of deterring early births as an anti-poverty strategy.

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Delayed parenting and anti-poverty policy

Here’s a preview of talk today at Brown University’s population center.

My basic argument is that policies intended to prevent poverty by delaying parenthood are mostly misplaced, especially with regard to Black women. Not that delaying parenthood is bad per se, but delaying parenthood in the absence of other improvements in people’s conditions is ineffectual in the aggregate, and actually harmful for some populations.

The delayed childbearing argument features prominently in the recent “consensus” on anti-poverty strategy reached by the American Enterprise Institute / Brookings working group I wrote about here. They say:

It would be better for couples, for children, and for society if prospective parents plan their births and have children only when they are financially stable, are in a committed relationship (preferably marriage), and can provide a stable environment for their child.

Isabel Sawhill, a leading proponent of delayed childbearing as anti-poverty strategy, says in her book Generation Unbound, that she is not telling poor people not to have children, but she sort of is. She writes:

It is only fair to expect parents to limit the number of children they have to something they can afford.

The evidence I offer to help argue that this approach is unhelpful includes this paper (the actual new research for the talk), which shows the risk of infant mortality rising with parent age for Black mothers, a pattern strikingly different from White and Hispanic mothers’ (see a discussion here). Here’s that result:


Adjusted Probability of Infant Death, by Maternal Age: White, Black, and Mexican Mothers, U.S., 2013. Predicted probabilities of infant death generated by Stata margins command, adjusted for plurality, birth order, maternal education, prenatal care, payment source, and cigarette smoking during pregnancy. Data source: 2013 Period Linked Birth/Infant Death Public Use File, Centers for Disease Control.

Of course, infant mortality is thankfully very rare, but it’s the extreme measure for the underlying pattern of women’s health. When infant mortality in a group is higher, their average health is usually worse.

I’m adding to that the following descriptive figures on children’s poverty rates according to how old their mothers were when they were born. This is by necessity limited to children who are still living with their mothers, because I used the Current Population Survey. I show this for all children (black lines), and then for those whose mothers have never married (red lines). The solid lines are official poverty-line rates, and the dotted lines use the Supplemental Poverty Measure. The latter shows lower poverty rates for children whose mothers were younger, because it reflects transfer income and welfare support as well as income from unmarried cohabiting partners.


For children overall (black lines), being born to an older mother appears beneficial in terms of poverty rates. This fits the standard story, in which delaying births allows women to go further in school and their careers, and get married, as well as being more mature and so on. However, for those whose mothers remain unmarried the relationship is much weaker, and there is no relationship to the SPM. To me this undermines the policy of delay with regard to women who have low probability of marriage during their child-bearing years. Which brings me back to Black women.

I estimated the same pattern by race/ethnicity, this time just using the SPM, in a model that controls for child age, sex, nativity, geography, and mother’s marital status (ever- versus never-married). I didn’t control for education, because schooling is also an outcome of birth timing (so if young mothers don’t go to college for that reason, this would show them more likely to be poor as a result). Here’s the result:


For White women there is a strong relationship, with lowest poverty rates for children whose mothers were in their 30s when they were born. For Black and Hispanic women the relationship is much weaker (it actually looks very similar when you control for education as well, and if you use the continuous income-to-needs ration instead of the poverty-line cutoff).

My conclusion is that I’m all for policies that make family planning available, and U.S. women should have better access to IUDs in particular (which are much more common in other rich countries) — these need to be part of better medical care for poor people in general. But I don’t favor this as a poverty-reduction strategy, and I reject the “responsibility” frame for anti-poverty policy evident in the quotes above. I prefer education, jobs, and income support (which Sawhill also supports, to her credit). See Matt Bruenig on the Brookings “Success Sequence” and my op-ed on income support.

Ideals and intentions

Consider this from Sawhill. In her book Generation Unbound, she writes:

‘poor and minority women … themselves do not want to have as many children as they are currently having. Unintended pregnancy rates are much higher among the poor, minority groups, and the less-educated … [free, better contraception] can help poorer and less-educated women align their behavior with their intentions.’ (p. 138)

I think we need to take a little more complicated view of intentions here. She is referring to what demographers call “unintended” births, which means the woman recalls that she was not intending to get pregnant at the time — she either wanted to get pregnant some time in the future, or never. As you can see, such unintended pregnancies are very common:


However, most poor women think the ideal family size is large. Among young women, 65% of women who didn’t finish high school, and 48% of those with high school degrees but no BA, believe 3 or more children is the ideal for a family:


For lots of their births, poor women were not ready, or not planning to get pregnant. But it’s also common for poor people to never achieve their ideal conditions for having children — good job, marriage, housing, education, and so on. In that case, with the clock running on their (and their mothers’) health, unintended childbearing is more complicated than just a behavior problem to be solved. It may reflect a compromise between unachievable goals.

In addition to making sure everyone has the reproductive healthcare they need (including more effective contraception), I think we should also help people achieve their long-term ideals — including having the children they want to have — rather than (just) help them realize their short-term intentions.


Filed under Me @ work, Research reports

How about we stop moralizing and end child poverty tomorrow?

How much would you pay to stop having to listen to rich people tell poor people how to run their families?

If my calculations are correct, we can end child poverty for $62 billion per year. Is that a lot? No, it’s not. It’s $578 per non-poor family — but (if Twitter analytics are to be believed) my typical reader will pay less because I’ll put it on a sliding scale for you. Details below.

Americans tend to think of poverty as a giant, intractable problem, combining intergenerational dynamics, complex policy tradeoffs, conflicting cultural values, and “personal responsibility” (not to mention genetics). For example, in her book Generation Unbound, Isabel Sawhill says, “If we could return marriage rates to their 1970 level, the child poverty rate would be about 20% lower.” She’s (wisely) not advocating that, because it’s impossible, but think of it — rolling back one of the major demographic trends of the last half century would be social reversal on an unprecedented scale. For a measly 20% reduction in poverty? Apple alone could eliminate 100% of U.S. poverty for two years with the money under its couch cushions. (One reason people think poverty is so hard to solve is they don’t understand the scale of the population and the economy. Because “millions and millions” of poor people sounds like an insurmountable problem, it’s very helpful to play around with real numbers to get a sense of the magnitudes we’re dealing with.)

In our system, the vast majority of poor people are those in hard-to-employ categories. As Matt Bruenig recently wrote, 83% percent of poor people are either children, old people, people with disabilities, students, people taking care of family members, or people who can’t find jobs. (Among the employed poor, most are sharing their income with family members who can’t work.) We are a “country that relies heavily on the market to distribute the national income,” Bruenig writes. But it’s actually the market via the family. If these vulnerable groups are people who need someone else’s labor to support them, at least temporarily, then the attitude written into our policies is that such support should come from their families. If your family can’t do it — or you don’t have a family — good luck. It doesn’t have to be this way.

Isabel Sawhill, incidentally, is behind a column the other day by Catherine Rampell, which makes the reasonable suggestion to increase access to contraception for poor women, for the unreasonable reason that such a policy would “fight poverty” and reduce spending on welfare. The poverty angle here is that poor parents have — wait for it — poor children:

Children brought into the world before their parents were financially or emotionally ready for them are … disadvantaged before they’re even born, no matter how loved they are.

That “financially or emotionally ready” line is from Sawhill, and its implication is clear, though its advocates are for some reason squeamish about saying it plainly: poor people should not have children. I hate this attitude.

Look: children usually (fortunately) don’t make money. Somehow income from someone else’s labor has to pay for their homes, schools, doctors, food and water. A lot of that money comes from the state (for rich and poor kids alike). But under our stingy welfare state, if their parents don’t have decent jobs they wind up poor. The mindset that sees our welfare system as a fixed entity looks at this and says, “These kids are poor because of their parents. They weren’t financially ready to have kids.” Wrong. They’re poor because we insist on it.

I would like to live in a society — in a neighborhood, a community — in which people without good jobs can still have children, while they’re young, and have happy families. And I’m willing to pay my share of the cost of that. Are you? It’s not as much as you think.

Here are the details

All I did was calculate how much below the poverty line all the poor families with children are. That is the amount we need to raise (each year) to end child poverty. Then I distributed that cost across the non-poor families, on a sliding scale. How hard would this program be? We already have all the infrastructure in place to move income around; it’s just a change in the tax code.

With the 2014 Current Population Survey data from IPUMS.org, I can calculate how much each poor family is below their poverty threshold. I’m focusing on families with children for now. There are 6.5 million poor families with a child under 18, and on average they are $9,450 below the poverty line based on their family size and composition. So, to eliminate child poverty we need $61.6 billion dollars per year.* (Note: I have repeated this with the 2015 CPS data, which reduces this number to $57 billion, but I haven’t updated the whole post.)

Where are we going to get that kind of money? From non-poor families.

There are 107 million non-poor families, so we’re going to need about $578 per family per year to pay this bill and end the scourge of child poverty. Of course, $578 is a lot of money for some people, but on average the non-poor families have incomes $40,874 more than their poverty threshold. To ease the pain, I created a simple, continuously-graded scale. I broke the non-poor families into 10 equal-size bins from rich to less rich, and slid the tax rate from 1.8% down to 0% (that way there’s no penalty for moving just over the poverty line). Here’s how it works (click to enlarge):

eliminate child poverty

The tax is only applied on the surplus for each family — that is, the resources they have (after taxes, work expenses, health care and child care) over their poverty threshold. If we tax the surpluses of the richest 10% of non-poor families at the virtually painless rate of just 1.8% — and everyone below them at an even lower rate — we end child poverty in the U.S.

Here’s the chart that shows how much you have to pay, broken down by average income in each decile of non-poor people**:

eliminate child poverty.xlsx

Some people say the Pope should stick to religious matters, and not speak about politics. Some people also say a social scientist should stick to scientific analysis, and not make moral demands. You can ignore my moralizing, as long as you understand the fact that child poverty is a choice we make with our policies. Eliminating child poverty does not require restructuring American families, mass contraception campaigns, or a new ethos of shame. It just costs a little money.

* Technical note: To do the calculations, instead of the official poverty rate I used the Supplemental Poverty Measure. This measures resources versus needs for “resource units,” which are either families (including cohabitors, foster children, and other people that are normally considered “non-relatives”) or unrelated individuals. For every resource unit, the poverty threshold is based on the cost of food, clothing, shelter, and utilities, adjusted for geographic location, housing type, and family composition. In addition to money income, the resources for the calculation include non-cash assistance like food stamps, school lunch, housing and energy subsidies; and then they deduct from resources taxes, work expenses, child care expenses, medical expenses, and child support (it’s all described here). I call resource units “families,” although some of them are single people. The Stata code I used to analyze the data, which includes the variables you need from IPUMS, is here.

** Please consider making a contribution of at least twice this to help address the much larger problem of poverty in the poor countries of the world.


Filed under In the news

Getting serious about promoting marriage to end poverty

This expands on some practice-what-you-preach criticism of conservative marriage promotion, with some numbers. I’m not endorsing the approach described here — I’m saying marriage promoters should adopt this if they are serious about promoting marriage to reduce poverty.

At Demos, Matt Bruenig wrote:

After rigging the institutions to capture the majority of the national income and basically all of the national wealth, segregating themselves residentially, intermarrying almost solely in their rich enclaves, and even sealing off their schools from being accessed by the unwashed masses, these rich social conservatives turn around and implore others to marry people that they wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole, people they can’t even bring themselves to make even the most minimal of community with.

In response, Sandy Darity tweeted: “I proposed that a marriage antipoverty strategy should have rich white men marry poor black women.” I don’t want to put the onus for ending poverty just on pro-marriage pundits. Instead — as Darity suggests — we should think in terms of broader policy.

Whose norms?

Marriage promotion is mostly about convincing (educating, coaching) poor people to marry other poor people. That follows from the “culture matters” perspective on marriage decline advocated by some social scientists as an explanation for declining marriage rates. For example, in a New Yorker profile of Orlando Patterson, Kelefa Sanneh writes:

[William Julius] Wilson argued that declining professional prospects made some black men less marriageable. Patterson thinks that declining marriage rates had more to do with the increased availability of contraception and abortion, which eroded cultural norms that had once compelled men to marry the women they impregnated.

Whether the proximate cause is men’s reduced economic prospects or changing norms, the fact is that if poor people changed their attitudes (norms, culture) about marriage — if they put more priority on the importance of marriage and worried less about the economic qualities of the match — there would be more marriage and, they say they believe, less poverty, inequality, violence, and abuse).

An obvious problem with this whole enterprise is that the marriage boosters assume the next marriage they generate through marriage promotion will be as economically beneficial to the participants as the average existing marriage observed in the population. But if one of the reasons for non-marriage is poor economic status, then it follows that the next marriage generated will on average be much less beneficial economically than the average marriage (I expanded on this here). So the plan to reduce poverty by promoting marriage among the poor is running uphill. Or, it would be running uphill if it was running at all, but of course (ridiculous research shenanigans notwithstanding) their billion dollars spent has yet to generate a marriage, so this is really all very generous speculation.

If they really wanted to change “the culture”

For several decades, marriage promoters have been complaining that “the culture” isn’t pro-marriage enough. The latest version of this, from David Blankenhorn and colleagues, seeks to “restore a marriage culture among the less privileged.” But, although it’s true that poor people (especially poor Black people) have seen a faster drop in marriage rates, that’s not where the biggest anti-poverty gains are to be had. If you really want marriage to reduce poverty, and you really think policy can change “the culture” to make more marriages, then what you really need is (as Darity said) some rich (mostly) White men to marry some poor (disproportionately) Black women.

Why not? Is it really more far-fetched to imagine you could change rich White men’s attitudes toward poor Black women than it is to suppose you could “restore a marriage culture” among the poor? Why? Maybe one reason policies to increase marriage among the poor haven’t work is because the economic benefits aren’t great enough. If you were the kind of person that goes in for this sort of policy (which, again I am not), you’d have to assume poor people would be more receptive to the idea of marrying rich people — that’s one important premise of Wilson and Patterson’s perspective. So the problem is rich people don’t want to marry them.

How difficult can this be? Just to put some numbers to the idea, I did the following simple exercise. Take all the poor single mothers — specifically, non-married women living in their own households with their own children, with family incomes that put them below the federal poverty line — and match them up with rich single men.

How many rich single men do you need? With this definition, I get 3.5 million poor single mothers. I started with the richest single man, and went down the income ladder till I had enough to solve the single-mother poverty problem. It turns out you only have to go down to $80,000 per year in income. Here’s the matching, with the race/ethnicity of the two groups shown:

rich men marry poor women.xlsxIf the problem is that poor women are too economically choosy to marry the poor men in their lives, then we could easily lift these 3.5 million single mothers — and the 7.1 million children in their families — out of poverty simply by changing the anti-marriage views of these selfish, rich, single men. Of course, we’d have to reduce racist attitudes also, but not entirely — only a third of the non-Black rich single men would need to open their minds to the possibility of marrying a Black woman. You would have to be creative with the incentives for these men, including consciousness-raising and parenting classes, as well as, for example, Starbucks gift cards and subscriptions to the Economist.

Now, no one thinks you can socially engineer — through shame or tax incentives — the marital behavior of entire populations, so this strategy couldn’t be expected to completely eliminate the problem of single mothers and their children living in poverty. But it couldn’t be less effective than the marriage promoters have achieved with the last billion dollars they spent.


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The War on Poverty at 50: Swimming against the tide

I have written a brief report for the Council on Contemporary Families, released today, for the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty declaration by Lyndon Johnson: Was the War on Poverty a Failure? Or Are Anti-Poverty Efforts Swimming Simply Against a Stronger Tide?

The figures include this one, showing changes in earnings by gender and education over the past two decades:


In between figures and statistics, key points:

  • The suite of social welfare programs introduced or expanded in that era moved millions of people out of poverty and improved the lives of millions more who remained income-poor.
  • In recent years, however, poverty has been rising once again.
  • Focusing on children, our most vulnerable citizens, highlights both the strengths and the limits of our current anti-poverty programs.
  • The high rates of child poverty in America highlight a basic feature about the U.S. system, and its principal vulnerability: ours remains predominantly a market-based system of care.
  • And the multiplication of low-wage jobs that has come with widening inequality is a formidable obstacle to reducing poverty today.
  • Despite frequent claims to the contrary, that government can play a key role in reducing poverty.

The report is paired with an excellent piece by Kristi Williams: Promoting Marriage among Single Mothers: An Ineffective Weapon in the War on Poverty? Her bullet points are:

  • The rapid rise in nonmarital fertility is arguably the most significant demographic trend of the past two decades.
  • How can we improve the lives of the growing numbers of unmarried mothers and their children? So far, a dominant approach has been to encourage their mothers to marry.
  • The flaw in this argument is the assumption that all marriages are equally beneficial.
  • Our recent research adds to the growing body of evidence that promoting marriage is not the answer to the problems facing single mothers and their children.
  • A more promising approach is to focus on reducing unintended or mistimed births.
  • If the goal of marriage promotion efforts was truly to lower poverty rates and improve the well-being of unmarried parents and their children, then it is time to take a different approach toward this goal.

Kudos and thanks to the Council on Contemporary Families (of which I’m a board member) for putting this together, especially Stephanie Coontz and Virginia Rutter, who did the work of coordinating, editing, and distributing the reports.


Filed under In the news, Me @ work

Blame the poor, “We tried generosity and it just doesn’t work” edition

With all the money we have given them, why are the poor still poor?

One of the meanest right-wing statistical memes about poverty has been popping up a lot this fall. I saw it most recently in this commentary by Christine Kim, who wrote:

Since the mid-1960s, government has spent more than $19.8 trillion (in 2011 dollars) in total on means-tested welfare programs. With 80 such federal programs, targeted government spending for low-income families – including on health, education, housing, and income supports – totaled nearly $930 billion in fiscal 2011 alone. If converted to cash, this sum would be four times what is needed to lift every poor family out of poverty. About half of this annual means-tested spending goes to families with children. If divided among the 14 million poorest families with children, each family would receive about $33,000. Why, then, have poverty rates remained so high for so long? Clearly, the solution to alleviating poverty is not more of the same.

Brookings’ Ron Haskins used the same numbers, rearranged slightly, to write this in November:

We already spend more than enough money on means-tested programs for poor and low-income people to bring them all out of poverty. There were about 46.5 million people in poverty in 2012, a year in which spending on means-tested programs was around $1 trillion. If that money were divided up among the poor, we could spend about $22,000 per person. For a single mother and two children, that would be over $65,000. The poverty level in 2013 for a mother and two children is less than $20,000. So this strategy would work, but giving so much money to young, able-bodied adults would not be tolerated by the public.

This way of manipulating welfare state spending seems to have originated from Robert Rector at Heritage, who offered it in Congressional testimony in 2012.

This meme is — and I am choosing my words carefully — stupid and evil.

It’s stupid because it ignores how poverty is calculated and how “means-tested” money is spent. If you took away Medicaid and housing support alone, the poverty line for a single mother with two children would have to be a lot higher. For example, according to Rector’s original figures (shared here), half of that means-tested money is spent on medical care, mostly Medicaid. So, Haskins, if you took away Medicaid (and Obamacare subsidies), how much would a single mother with two children need to survive? Health insurance alone would cost her more than $10,000.

So is $33,000 per family such a ridiculously generous amount to live on that it would easily lift people out of poverty? Not without the benefits poor people get. Or if they get sick. In round numbers 10 years old, 5% of the population spends half the money on medical care. Using the distribution reported in that paper, $10,000 per family on medical care is not much, if it’s distributed more or less like this:


Further, all those non-poor families living on $33,000 in employment income are getting benefits, too, like tax-subsidized employer-provided healthcare, mortgage interest deductions, unemployment insurance, and retirement savings. If you took all that away and gave these non-poor families $33,000 to live on, they wouldn’t be non-poor for long. So the argument is stupid.

It’s also evil, because it says, “We’ve thrown so much money at poor people and it just doesn’t work, so it’s time for them to step up and contribute a little themselves.” The main thing Kim wants them to do is get married. She even says, “If single mothers simply were to wed the father of their child, their likelihood of living in poverty would fall by two-thirds,” and adds that, “contrary to myth the fathers are quite ‘marriageable.'”

The calculations for this are not shown, which is probably just as well. But the idea that the “benefits” of marriage — that is, the observed association between marriage and non-poverty — would accrue to single mothers if they “simply” married their partners is bonkers. There is a marriage queue (imperfect of course) that arranges people from most to least likely to marry, and on average the richer, healthier, better-at-relationships people are at the front, more likely to marry and produce the observed “benefits” of marriage. “Marriageable” isn’t a dichotomous condition, but it’s obvious that at any one time the currently non-married are not the same as the currently married.

But back to evil. The idea that we’ve spent so much on poverty that it proves spending doesn’t solve poverty is like saying, “we’ve spent $13 trillion on the military in just the last quarter century, and we don’t have complete world domination yet, so obviously war is not the answer.”


Oh, wait, I do agree with that.

But we don’t spend money on the military and fight wars to fix the world. We do it to fatten defense contractors, provide jobs, prop up unpopular allies, and defend the country from the occasional threat. The defense industry doesn’t have to defend the claim that the spending is a one-time thing to cure a problem.

Giving poor people money — or in-kind benefits — to help them survive is not a solution to poverty, it’s a treatment for poverty. If we had more decency we’d do more of it.


Filed under Politics

Women’s Employment and the Decline in Marriage Are No Longer Related

Originally published on TheAtlantic.com.

For a few decades, women’s rising share of the workforce probably led to fewer women getting married. But that’s not the case anymore.


It is common knowledge—and true—that marriage rates are falling and unmarried parenting is becoming more common (nicely illustrated here). On the other hand, it is also common knowledge—but not true—that women’s employment rates have continued to rise in the last two decades (as illustrated here.)

In the long run of history, there is little doubt these trends are related: As women’s economic independence increased with better job opportunities, marriage became more optional and fewer women got (or stayed) married. But in the medium run, on the scale of a few decades rather than long eras, it’s not that simple.

Here are the trends in marriage and labor force participation for women using U.S. Census data going back to 1900.


Source: My analysis of Census data from IPUMS.

In the long run of the past 111 years, there certainly are more employed women and more single women. But the trends only moved strongly in the same direction for the three decades from 1960 to 1990, when the percent of women not married more than doubled from 18 percent to 43 percent and the percent in the labor force almost doubled from 41 percent to 76 percent. In the last two decades labor force participation has frozen while the percent not married has jumped another 7 points.

Here is the trick: Despite the real connection between non-marriage and employment—in which women don’t feel as strong a need to be married if they are employed—the lion’s share of rising employment has been among married women. Women’s employment opportunities made non-marriage more viable but also changed marriage. As the employment rates of married and non-married women grew more similar, the decline of marriage has made less of a difference to the total employment rate. Moving women from married to single doesn’t do much anymore. Here are the employment trends:


The American Stall
So we need to understand the stalled rise in employment because it may be the key to understanding progress toward gender equality generally.

In a previous post I suggested that stalled progress resulted from feeble work-family policy, anti-feminist backlash, and weak anti-discrimination enforcement. A recent analysis by economists Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn lends support to the first: work-family policy. Economix writer Catherine Rampbell highlighted the paper, which tracked employment rates over 22 wealthy countries for two decades. During that time, U.S. women fell from sixth to 17th in labor force participation rates—rising just one percentage point while women in the average country increased 12 points.

Here are the labor force participation rates for the 22 countries for 1990 and 2010. Dots to the left of the blue line show countries where women’s labor force presence increased; dots to the right show decreases. At the extreme, for example, Ireland saw a jump from 45 percent to 72 percent.


Source: My chart from the Blau and Kahn paper.

What happened? One big change was the advance of several work-family policies. The average number of weeks of guaranteed parental leave increased from 37 to 57 in these countries, with the U.S. adding only a 12-week rule under the Family Medical Leave Act (covering only half the workforce). The average country on this list now provides a guaranteed 38 percent of parents’ wages while they’re on leave, while the U.S. provides none. Seven of the countries now protect a right to part-time work, and three-quarters guarantee equal treatment for part-time workers. Public spending on child care as a proportion of GDP increased by more than a third outside the U.S., and the average country now spends more than four-times as much as the U.S.

Together, based on the experience of these countries, Blau and Kahn estimate these changes account for more than a quarter of U.S. women’s slippage relative to other countries. That’s not everything, but it’s a substantial bite. If we had kept up with the average country’s policies, U.S. women would have had an 82 percent labor force participation rate, putting them at 11th on the list instead of 17th.

On the Other Hand
Not all work-family policies are the same. One way to divide them is between those that protect time out of paid work (parental leave, part-time protections) and those that protect time in paid work (especially state-supported childcare). As Blau and Kahn note, U.S. women have much lower rates of part-time work than those in most other rich countries, but we also have higher rates of women in professional and managerial jobs. That might be because employers in those countries are reluctant to hire or promote women who are expected to take time out of the labor force when they have children—which is exactly the goal of some of our low-fertility peer countries. How, and whether, such policies can improve family life while also promoting gender equality is the subject of a rich debate—which unfortunately remains in the realm of the hypothetical here in the U.S.


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