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Help Women Work to Bolster Our Economy

Janet Yellen, chair of the Federal Reserve, keeps a close eye on the United States economy. One of the concerns of the Federal Reserve since the Great Recession (officially 2007–2009) has been the sluggish rate of overall economic growth in the United States, which impacts the well-being of all of us. In a recent speech, reported by Binyamin Appelbaum of the New York Times, Chair Yellen said that policies making it easier for women to work could significantly improve the nation’s economic growth. She suggests three policy areas that would make it easier for women to participate in the labor market:

  • Expand the availability of paid leave.
  • Make affordable child care available.
  • Make flexible work schedules more available.

Yellen notes that raising women’s participation in the workforce to the same level as men’s could increase annual economic output by 5 percent. The fact is that, since the early 1990s, women’s level of participation in the workforce has been falling in the United States. Appelbaum notes that a recent study by Francine D. Blau and Lawrence M. Kahn, both of Cornell University, found that the United States has fallen to seventeenth place out of twenty-two developed nations in women’s workplace participation. The researchers attribute the decline in workforce participation by women to a lack of government policies. They suggest that the United States should adopt European policies on paid leave and affordable child care to close the employment gap. Yellen noted in her speech that we are squandering “the potential of many of our citizens and (will) incur substantial loss to the productive capacity of our economy” if we do not make it easier for women to work.

Why don’t we have the same level of government support for working women and men in the United States as is available in Europe? Claire Cain Miller of the New York Times  notes that while Americans agree that paid family leave should be available to workers to take care of a new baby or a sick family member, we cannot agree on who should pay for it, or whether it should be mandatory or voluntary. Miller cites a recent Pew Foundation report showing that 94 percent of Americans say paid leave would help families, 65 percent say that paid leave would help the economy, and 67–87 percent support paid leave being available.

However, Miller notes that Americans are torn about gender roles and also about whether paid leave should be a government mandate or offered voluntarily by businesses. She notes that

  • Some Americans feel a massive distrust of mandatory government policies; 69 percent of Democrats support a government mandate for paid leave, while only 33 percent of Republicans do.
  • US culture shows deep ambivalence about gender roles; a majority of Republicans feel it is not in the best interest of families for women to work outside of the home.

Unfortunately, the people who most need to work are the most affected by the lack of government policies that support working families. Low-income workers (including women, blacks, Hispanics, and those without a college degree) are often thrown into poverty when a baby is born or a family member is ill and the worker must take time off. Workers lose income and also can lose their jobs.

Workers, families, and our economy will all benefit from mandated family leave and the availability of affordable child care. The United States is the only industrialized country that does not mandate paid leave. Shame on us. We must find the will to do this for the greater good.

What are your thoughts?

 

Photo courtesy of Katrinaelsl. CC by-nd 2.0

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