Women and participation in labor force
Nancy Folbre economist at UMass Amherst speaks to the issue of the participation of women in our economy:
Paradoxically, however, the very expansion of paid employment and the success of feminism have weakened gender solidarity. They have also intensified inequalities in family living standards.
Relatively few women in the workplace have made it into Ms. Whitman’s and Ms. Fiorina’s league. Still, earnings differences among women have been growing over time in the United States.
Married women’s rapid movement into paid employment between the 1960s and the mid-1990s helped prop up family incomes. But high-earning women tend to marry high-earning men, while low earners tend either to marry one another or — increasingly — not to marry at all. As women have garnered higher incomes, this marital sorting has intensified family-income inequality.
As more married women started bringing home a paycheck, previous differences in market income among families were reduced.
But the resulting decline in unpaid work had the opposite effect. Married women who don’t work for pay typically devote more than 40 hours a week to child care, meal preparation, house cleaning, shopping and related tasks, making a substantial contribution to family living standards.
Women’s productivity per hour in unpaid work almost certainly varied less than their market earnings, suggesting that housewives exerted an equalizing effect on the distribution of families’ “extended earnings” — the sum of market earnings and the imputed value of unpaid work.
As a result, increases in married women’s labor-force participation probably had a disequalizing effect on this broad measure of living standards.
(You can find more details about this argument in a draft paper of which I was a co-author for a recent conference on inequality and the middle class sponsored by the Luxembourg Income Study).
Rdan here…take a look at the draft paper…interesting.
Andrew Leonard at Atlantic presents a more practical concern of the Great Recession for many women.
“Women’s productivity per hour in unpaid work almost certainly varied less than their market earnings, suggesting that housewives exerted an equalizing effect on the distribution of families’ “extended earnings” — the sum of market earnings and the imputed value of unpaid work.
“As a result, increases in married women’s labor-force participation probably had a disequalizing effect on this broad measure of living standards.”
The first of the two quoted paragraphs seems to indicate that unpaid labor served to level living standards somewhat. The second paragraph states that increased female labor force participation increased differences in living standards. Both could be true, but the structure – contradictory ideas set next to each other without any effort to resolve the conflict – gives the impression that the author is simply contradicting herself. Probably needs a rewrite.
But high-earning women tend to marry high-earning men,
Assortive mating, which has been increasing over recent history, is something that is quite frequently overlooked when talking about raising marginal income tax rates. One common progressive retort is, “is that CEO really going to work less hard because we’ve raised marginal rates from 40% to 50%” which is fair to an extent. LeBron James is still going to get paid the maximum salary allowed by the Collective Bargaining Agreement regardless of tax rates. But the retort fails to take into account that the spouse of the CEO has an effective tax rate = marginal tax rate.
Hi kharris–I’m confused by your comment above. Unpaid housework exerted an equalizing effect, paid work a disequalizing effect. How is this contradictory? Suggestions about how to rewrite this are welcome…
One paragraph relates that a kind of work equalizes. Another paragraph relates how another kind of work disequalizes. The conclusion names a winner, without saying why.
“As a result, increases in married women’s labor-force participation probably had a disequalizing effect on this broad measure of living standards.”
I believe you, but I always want the mechanism made explicit. You point out that two effects push in opposite directions, then try to show the balance with “as a result, …” “As a result” doesn’t get me there. I want, “this effect seems to be greater than that effect, so that increases in married women’s labor-force participation probably had a disequalizing effect…?
Picky, I know, but scientific writing is meant to be as unambiguous as possible.
One question that I have never been able to answer is how much working wives have increased living standards. It appears most if not all it accomplished was to lower wages and wage growth. This would give a slight edge to two income households over one but in net accomplish little. In part this is due to treating increases in income as inflationary and in part to lower average productivity. It created more work at lower pay, but very little more real wealth as far as I can determine.
One question that I have never been able to answer is how much working wives have increased living standards.
Partly because the real median wage for men peaked in 1974.
Paid labor produces income. That is turned into wealth through (successful) saving. If the increase in real wealth has been slow, we need to look at the savings rate, and the performance of assets, as well as income.
It seems true that the increase of women in the workforce helped keep wages down, but that isn’t all there is to labor. Women have far greater employment opportunity now than in the past. That means women who choose a single life (or have one imposed on them by death or divorce) have a better shot at a a good material life.
And if we want to indulge in a little class warfare thinking, it is probably no surprise that women’s wages were kept low while their participation in the workforce increased. That means a lower average wage and restraint on men’s wages, in one swell foop. Like most of modern class warfare, the psy-ops effort was aimed mostly at setting one poorer group off against another, so that neither group had time to notice the biggers sources of their troubles.
But of course one of the things that ENABLED an increasing percentage of married women to work outside the home was all the productivity improvements that went on IN the home. Microwaves, prepared foods, permanant press, vacuum cleaners etc, all played their part in allowing women to have hours free for renumerative employment.
nb. when my sister was small, my mother was a member of a cooperative daycare. Women would watch each other’s children in turn so that they could have some free time. But this was largely killed by the increasing number of women who had jobs and therefore weren’t available to watch everybody else’s kids once a week.
Hardly a new idea. Yes, assortative mating has increased inequality in household incomes. Yes. we should consider household production (although when I say we should Sandwichman shouts at me).
Sen and Stiglitz did an interesting paper for Sarkozy on this.
What slightly wories me is that I, a stick in the mud classical liberal, have been pointing such things out in journalism pieces for some years now. It really would be most odd if hack journalism (in the English sense please, not the American, ie accomplished but written quickly to deadline rather than following a particular political line) were ahead of papers offered at conferences.
The overall effect, in spite of women’s increased ability to actualize themselves, is that almost twice as many people are working but living standards have not gone up. What’s wrong with this picture? We are working harder and longer but not getting ahead.
KH–Excellent point. NO
I can certainly understand the shift, I just don’t know how to quantify it. My best guess is at least 2/3rds of the income went to positional goods like housing, making the previous owner better off but not really the new owner, and i can’t exclude there was no overall benefit which means the plateau in participation after 1995 was probably a good thing. Are falling participation rates any concern? Often we hear the solution to Social Security is increasing the retirement age, but in fact this would probably largely be just a shift from tax transfers to wage transfers from those working.
Paradoxically, however, the very expansion of paid employment and the success of feminism have weakened gender solidarity.
nothing paradoxical about it. when you have won the war, you disband the army.
not sure what’s your point. but the labor saving housekeeping products likely would have been bought without the women going to work. if, as said, and as i believe, the net effect of women working has been to lower wages so that it now takes two earners to earn what one earner did before… you can look for the productivity gains in the pockets of the very high earners towards whom all money drifts.
can’t say that i see microwaves and prepared food as an increase in the standard of living. they give us people chows and then brag about bringing down the cost of food.
and there was a time when raising children was considered one of the joys of life. long gone. though i suspect the single-family home (solitary confinement for mom) may have had as much to do with that as equal opportunity to work for macdonalds.
I would agree the increase in income attributed to a married couple with family went to Housing, Transportation from the Suburbs, Healthcare, and Child Care as married women joined the work force. There was no increase in savings and indeed savings decreased due to these expenses. Dr. Elizabeth Warren does an excellent report on the impact of the 2nd income for families since the seventies. “The Coming Collapse of the Middle Class.”
In my opinion, falling Participation Rates are a problem for the economy. A higher nonworking population has a higher cost and lower revenue.
Nancy Folbre’s NYT column on the participation of women in our economy is flawed. Quote, “Married women’s rapid movement into paid employment between the 1960s and the mid-1990s helped prop up family incomes.”
Nancy, the economic impact of women in the workforce started in the 1940’s due to WWII. The greatest changes in wartime economic behavior took place among married women. One in every ten married women entered the work force during the war. The percentage of all wives who worked outside the home grew from 13.9 in 1940 to 22.5 in 1944. In 1943, women were hired as mechanics, press, crane, and tractor operators as well as in professional classifications usually filled by men. Women’s’ pay increased substantially and massive shifts occurred in the labor force as women worked in war production plants. Women became the breadwinners and experienced economic independence as men trooped off to war. For the first time, women built airplanes, warships, munitions and tanks, and worked in technical and scientific fields.
The question is what changed for women after WWII ended. Women wanted to continue working after the war ended. But, millions of men came back from serving in the military. There was a widespread fear that there would be another depression once the war machine shut down. Women were forced to leave the well-paying job market so returning veterans could be re-employed. The paying jobs open for women were the low paying pink-collar jobs. And of course, the economic choice of marrying and financial dependence on the husband’s income.
Nancy states, “Paradoxically, however, the very expansion of paid employment and the success of feminism have weakened gender solidarity.” Nancy your conclusion doesn’t hold water. She deliberately leaves out the critical period of WWII. The very expansion of paid employment for women during WWII is critical. Women experienced an enormous economic leap by the mid 1940’s. However, the aftereffects of the war economy shutdown and men returning to reclaim their “jobs” from women provided limited choices. Returning to the traditional wife roles was like fitting square pegs into round holes. In fact, this moment in time accelerated feminism and strengthened female solidarity. Thus, the 1960’s explosion and shift to women’s economic rights that quickly encompassed minorities to challenge the economic patriarchal/dominator model.
i suppose there is some truth in what you say, but i have to say i don’t think it’s the whole story by half.
certainly i cannot see the joys of working in a factory being so compelling that lots of women wouldn’t want to give the “traditional” role of having kids and keeping house a try. i never heard any complaints about it when i listened to the grownups back then. my mother worked. i can’t say she was happy about it.
there are other forces in the world besides patriarchal domination.
if anything, by 1960 what I saw was employers preferring to hire women because they could get them cheaper, and because they did some kinds of work (light assembly) better than men.
is it really more self actualizing to work in a cubicle than to raise kids? is it the case that human beings were created for wage slavery?
“Nancy Folbre’s NYT column on the participation of women in our economy is flawed. Quote, “Married women’s rapid movement into paid employment between the 1960s and the mid-1990s helped prop up family incomes.”
“Nancy, the economic impact of women in the workforce started in the 1940’s due to WWII.”
This looks very much like one of those cases in which a writer’s failure to say what a particular reader wants said is identified as a “flaw”. In fact, the quote that is singled out is perfectly accurate, despite the WWII-era influx of women to the workforce. As rps notes, the fluxed back out again. That is why the change in the 1960s that Nancy writes about was a change.
The quoted piece of the article is perfectly fine, even if it isn’t what rps would have written if it were his article.
Choice is choice, and choice is good. To the extent that women gained options, that was an improvement. To the extent that they lost options when a single, moderate income was no longer adequate to fund a secure middle-class life, that improvement is at least partly erased.
What we have seen is an option turned to a near necessity. At the same time, since our preferences are our own, it really isn’t anybody’s place to say that a given woman will or won’t find work outside the home less rewarding that work inside the home. It’s the option that matters.
Run: I support the beginning of your note, but the second paragraph makes me pause. It seems so obvious but doesn’t the increased worker pool drive down the cost of labor and hence profitability to individuals. Yes business benefits, but as Lord points out, not the individual or the family.
sounds good. but a “near necessity” is not an option.
i doubt very much that the options for women were ever as restricted as is fashionable among feminist circles to suppose.
I got my best job when the woman they offered it to turned it down as too dirty and dangerous. This has become less true of new days jobs than it was of old days jobs. You will find I think that women’s rights in the workplace corresponds more or less exactly to the rise of jobs that women could do.
I have no brief whatsoever against women’s rights. Just a little tired of the political posturing about them.
and i don’t mean women can’t “do” executive jobs. i am sure they can. but the barrier they faced there is the barrier that everyone faces. they don’t hold the door open for you through the glass ceiling. you have to break through it yourself.