The Decline of Women in the Workforce

Published on January 25, 2017
Mary Tyler Moore died today at 80 years old
. The actress was most famous for “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” a major 1970s hit sitcom in which she played a professional single woman — one of the first television shows to portray a woman whose life focused on work, not family. The show is credited as being a feminist touchstone, but it also reminded Americans that women were a growing presence in the workforce.

Much has changed in American life since the 1970s, and it’s strange to think of a time when independent career women were regarded as a bizarre novelty. But few have noticed that in recent years, a growing number of prime working-age women have been disappearing from the workforce. The same phenomenon among men has been the subject of much debate, but women’s declining participation hasn’t received anywhere near the same amount of attention. But it’s this decline in the labor force participation rate (along with sluggish economic growth) that has made Americans so unhappy with the country’s economic performance and prospects, even though the unemployment rate has declined to less than half of what it was at the worst point of the recession.

A recent New York Times article on “Why Women Quit Working” observed that different factors are driving men’s and women’s disappearance from the work force. Men quit working (or even looking for work) because well-paying jobs in manufacturing, mining, and construction have dried up, as well as on account of physical injuries, criminal records, opioid addictions, and a refusal to take jobs that are considered “women’s work.” Women quit the labor force mainly because they find it too difficult to balance work and care for children and other family members.

The Times article focuses on Krystin Stevenson, a 31-year-old with two young children, who left a $40,000-a-year job as a customer service representative in 2015 “when her fragile support network collapsed.” Her mother, who had helped care for her kids, suffered a stroke and had to be taken care of herself. Ms. Stevenson tried to balance work with her new care responsibilities, “but the job wasn’t flexible.” So she quit and hasn’t worked since. The article notes that a husband’s injury, a child’s illness, or a family emergency can quickly push women out of their jobs, and that stagnating wages have also been a factor, particularly for women with no more than a high school degree, who dropped out of the labor force even faster than their male counterparts between 2000 and 2015.

The share of prime-age American women in the workforce soared in the ‘70s and ‘80s but peaked in 1999, receded in the early 2000s and then plunged during the recession. This trajectory is in sharp contrast to other developed countries. Most European countries (even Greece!) have a higher labor force participation rate among women, and the U.S. is one of the few developed countries in which the percentage of women bringing home paychecks is lower than it was in 2000.

This disappearance of women from the workforce is something that deeply concerns the members of the Republican Main Street Partnership. It also comes as no surprise to the Congresswomen who traveled around the country with the Women2Women Conversations Tour, where they heard directly from women in the audience about how difficult it’s becoming for them to balance work and family responsibilities.

That’s why workforce flexibility proposals were included in Main Street’s 2017 Policy Agenda, which we released yesterday. Main Street’s Reps. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) and Mimi Walters (R-CA), as well as other members of Main Street, are working on bills that would allow employers to offer their employees more flexible hours and leave. These may take the form of measures to provide tax credits to employers who offer paid leave or allow employees to accrue time off instead of income for working overtime — but a range of other possibilities are also being considered.

Main Street’s members are also working on proposals to help with the rising costs of child care, which has become a serious burden on families, forced many working women to leave their jobs, and damaged many women’s job and career prospects. Several of these proposals — for example, increasing the amount of the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit to reflect the current costs of child care as well as making the credit partially refundable — would help working families make ends meet, increase women’s employment, and decrease government dependency.

Main Street’s Congresswomen and Congressmen are optimistic that these and other innovative proposals can reverse the decline in labor force participation that has so troubled our national spirit. We want women like Krystin Stevenson to be able to make full use of their talents, return to the workforce, and gain the satisfaction and security that comes from gainful employment. We’re hopeful that Main Street’s members can drive these proposals into law and make a real, constructive difference in the lives of working-age American women.