What’s happening to married mothers in the workforce?

In 1977, a full two-thirds of Americans agreed that it was “much better for everyone involved if the man is the achiever outside the home and the woman takes care of the home and family.” Today, of course, women earn the majority of undergraduate and graduate degrees, and are now breadwinners in four out of ten families—a massive shift in the way American families work and live.

Yet the growing participation of women in the labor market stalled in the second half of the 1990s, coinciding with a period of increased wage inequality in the United States. Whether and how these trends are related is not fully understood. That is why the Washington Center for Equitable Growth awarded one of its inaugural grants to Philip Cohen and Meredith Kleykamp, both sociologists at the University of Maryland, who will investigate the relationship between inequality and women’s participation in the labor force, with a focus on married mothers in particular.

As single mothers have continued to expand their working hours, there has been a sizeable increase in the number of married women, and in particular married mothers, entering the labor force (as measured nationally) since the 1980s. Cohen and Kleykamp will look at married mothers’ entry and exit into local labor markets and their overall work hours, compared to other women (single and childless) and men. The two researchers will examine the labor market entry- and exit-rates of married mothers across metropolitan areas with different levels of income inequality in order to see if there is a relationship between the two trends.

What’s happening to married mothers is just one aspect of the story of growing inequality and gender equality, and may be helpful in trying to understand how families as a whole react to increasing economic insecurity. Cohen and Kleykamp suggest two possible outcomes. Parents may ramp up their work efforts in order to ensure greater financial security for their children. Or, one parent may drop out of the labor force because of the increasing pressure to engage in “intensive parenting.”

A more likely reason why married mothers leave the workforce is that existing federal policy does relatively little to help families balance raising their children and meeting the demands of work. Compared to other countries, the United States ranks last in many measures of work-friendly family policy, and is the only developed country that does not provide paid maternity leave. Americans also work more hours than those in most other countries. And, despite the commonly expressed desire among couples for gender equality in marriage, it is usually the mother who cuts back her hours or leaves work altogether, regardless of how much she earns in relation to her spouse.

Understanding how families reconcile a need to “overwork” with the need to provide high quality care for their children is important amid rising income inequality. Our two grantees, Cohen and Kleykamp, report preliminary results showing that there is indeed a relationship between economic inequality and women’s labor force participation of married mothers. As they put it, “more married mothers than average dropped out of the labor force in labor markets with rising earnings inequality.” Mothers may not necessarily want to stop working, but rather they may be exiting the labor force because existing federal, state and local policies work against mothers’ (and fathers’) desire for both parents to be co-parents and co-workers.

It is also important to note that married women who leave the labor market (and married couples in general) have disproportionately higher incomes in comparison to their unmarried counterparts. As wealthier mothers try to balance parenting with a labor market that is not family friendly, some may feel that the only option is to “opt-out.” But what happens if that option is not available? Such is the reality for millions of low- and middle-income mothers and fathers. Many parents cannot afford to “opt-out,” nor do their employers provide family-friendly workplace policies. Some are left with no choice but to work jobs with inflexible or unpredictable schedules, or without paid leave or benefits.  And, because of financial constraints, many parents cannot afford high quality childcare, with implications for our future economic security.

Regardless of income, all parents want to support their children so that they can lead healthy and productive lives. But doing so is not just a moral imperative. A healthy economy requires a productive workforce now and in the future. With so many women choosing to exit the labor force, the U.S. is at risk of losing a valuable source of productive capacity. At the same time, millions are struggling to juggle work and family life. Expanding our understanding of how parents can both balance work and their children’s needs will help policymakers prepare the next generation of workers to be productive members of the U.S. economy.





December 11, 2014


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