For the last 20 years, the labor force participation rate in the United States has been declining; this rate measures the percent of the working-age population that either has a job or is actively looking for one.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), since 1948 the highest labor force participation rate achieved in this country was 67 percent in 1997. For the following decade, this rate would decline by only one percentage point, but by December 2007, the start of the Great Recession, the labor force participation rate plunged from 66 percent to 63 percent by 2019. A three percentage point decline may not sound like a lot, but it represents the exodus of millions of people from the American workforce. Another sizable decline in the labor force participation rate has been occurring during the current pandemic, and as of September only 61 percent of America’s working age residents are employed or looking for work. To put this in perspective, since February there are 5.5 million individuals who have either left the American labor force, or decided to temporarily (or permanently) delay joining it — nearly two-thirds (3.2 million) of these individuals are women, with the number of women 20 years of age in the labor force contracting by 865,000 in September alone.
The early impact of COVID-19 on job losses in the U.S. showed disparities by gender — the female unemployment rate sailed past the male unemployment rate in April, topping 16 percent, compared to 13 percent for men. Since then, the gender gap in the unemployment rate has been narrowing, though the female unemployment rate is still (modestly) higher. However, with uneven school reopening planning taking place across the country during the summer, it wasn’t hard to predict that families were going to face tough choices about who would stay home with children engaged in full- or partial-distance learning. September labor force statistics seems to suggest that choices were indeed made, and that women were assuming the responsibility.
According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, approximately two-thirds of African American children, half of Native American children, 40 percent of Latinx children and 25 percent of non-Hispanic white children are raised in single parent homes; the overwhelming majority of these parents are single women. In addition, data from the Census Bureau indicates that about one-third of all women who work in the U.S. are mothers. Given these statistics, it seemed inevitable that some single mothers whose jobs could not be conducted remotely, but whose children would be learning remotely, were going to face a tough choice this fall. And such a choice was not only facing tens of thousands of single working moms, but also two-parent families where both parents are required to work onsite.
Among major female demographic groups for whom BLS provides monthly labor force data, the largest percentage decline in the labor force participation rate in September was among Latinas; this group’s labor force shrank by nearly 325,000. However, the largest absolute contraction in the labor force among female demographic groups occurred to the group with the lowest labor force participation rate; the number of white women in the labor force declined by over half a million last month even as this group enjoyed the lowest unemployment rate when compared to Black women and Latinas. Notably, the Black female labor force in the U.S. also contracted in September.
With nearly a million women exiting the workforce in September it is, of course, debatable whether this is mostly due to working moms leaving their jobs to supervise children engaged in remote learning. But it seems plausible that this is a contributing factor. What’s not debatable is that, whatever the cause, 865,000 fewer women in the American workforce is bad for the economy.
Michelle Holder, Ph.D, is an assistant professor in the Economics Department at John Jay College, City University of New York. Follow her on Twitter @mlholder999.