Who’s “opting out?”

Last week’s 60 Minutes story on (Women) Staying at Home, included the statement that "Census bureau statistics show a 15 percent increase in the number of stay-at-home moms in less than 10 years." I hadn’t seen any hard numbers supporting the claim that there’s been a big increase in the number of women staying home, so I set off in search of this statistic.

First stop was the Bureau of Labor Statistic’s useful databook on Women in the Labor Force. I soon learned that the labor force participation rate (meaning the fraction of the population employed, or looking for work) for women was in 2002 was 59.6 percent, a slight (0.7 percent) decline from the 1990 peak of 60.0 percent, but higher than any year between 1970 (when it was 43.3 percent) 1996.

But, of course, women with children are only a small fraction of all adult women, so there’d have to be a pretty big drop in the number of working mothers for it to show up in the overall labor force participation rate. So I kept looking.

The same databook reports that the labor force participation rate for all women with children under age 18 was 72.2 percent in 2002, down from a peak of 72.9 percent in 2000.* Looking only at women with children under age 3, the rate is 60.5 percent, down from a peak of 62.2 percent in 1998. We’re still looking at changes in the 1-3 percent range, nothing earthshattering. So I kept looking.

Next, I found an interesting article from the Monthly Labor Review, a journal put out by the Bureau of Labor Statistics with the headline: "Are women leaving the labor force?" It includes this quote from Barron’s, claiming that "In just the past two years, a quiet counterrevolution has begun…" The most interesting thing about this article, however, is that it’s from July 1994, shortly before women’s labor force participation hit new all-time highs. (For the record, the author, Howard Hayghe, correctly concluded "it is too early to proclaim that the trend of increasing labor force participation rates of women has been halted.") So, is the claim of the retreat from the workforce just hype? I kept looking.

Moving over to the Census bureau’s bi-annual report on the Fertility of American Women, which turns out to be the source for this Womens eNews story from last year. This report says that of women who had a child in the last year, 54.6 percent were in the labor force in 2002, down from a peak of 58.7 percent in 1998. That’s a 7 percent decline — albeit from an extremely high point. Looking at the breakout by education, it looks like the biggest percentage decrease is for women without a high school degree, and the smallest decrease is for women with a high school degree, but no college.

So what’s going on? I think there are two different stories, at different ends of the labor market. At one end, is the story about the stars and planets aligning in the late 1990s to get more low-income mothers into the labor force than ever before**: welfare reform removed an alternative to working, increased federal and state support for child care made working more possible, the Earned Income Tax Credit made working more profitable, and the strong economy made jobs available. The economy isn’t so strong these days, and it shouldn’t be a surprise that fewer poor mothers are working. (The big unanswered question is what are they living on, because it’s not welfare, but that’s a topic for another day.)

The second story is about well-off well-educated women who have the choice whether or not to work because they have other sources of income, most often husbands. For the last 30 years, this group has been more likely to work, not less, than other women, because they have access to the most interesting, renumerative, and flexible jobs. And it does look like there’s a small increase in the number who have chosen not to work in the past few years. Whether this is a blip in the trends (as the apparent decline in the early 1990s was), possibly caused by the weak economy, or is the start of a real change (post 9/11 reprioritizing?), I have no idea. And no one else does, either, no matter what they tell you.

Coming tomorrow: The plot thickens: another source of data on stay-at-home moms is found. And stay-at-home dads, too!


* Yes, mothers have a higher labor force participation rate than all adult women; it’s because "all adult women" includes senior citizens.

** I am aware that not all never-married mothers are low-income, but this was the closest graph I could find to what I wanted to show.

2 Responses to “Who’s “opting out?””

  1. amy Says:

    Thank you. I think this is a useful analytical thread.

  2. Rebel Dad Says:

    I think the 17 percent came from this report: http://www.census.gov/prod/2003pubs/p20-547.pdf
    The words “17 percent” never appear, but the author of the report gave the Wash. Times (ug) these numbers:
    “In 1994, around 9.3 million children younger than 15 had stay-at-home married mothers and working fathers, said Jason Fields, author of the bureau’s report, “Children’s Living Arrangements and Characteristics: March 2002.”
    By 2002, the number of these children rose to 11 million — a statistically significant increase, said Mr. Fields.”
    That’s 18 percent, but my math, but who’s counting.
    Look forward to your post tomorrow (today?).
    — rD

Leave a Reply

6 × two =