It's been obvious for a while that Hillary Clinton's policy platform would focus heavily on supporting working women and parents with initiatives like affordable child care and paid leave. But on Monday, during a big speech on economics in New York, she made a strong case for why we should think of those issues as keys to growth, rather than just matters of gender equity. Namely, the United States has fallen far behind much of the developed world when it comes to women's labor-force participation. Here's the key section of her remarks:
The movement of women into the workforce over the past forty years was responsible for more than three and a half trillion dollars in economic growth.
But that progress has stalled. The United States used to rank 7th out of 24 advanced countries in women’s labor force participation. By 2013, we had dropped to 19th. That represents a lot of unused potential for our economy and for American families.
Studies show that nearly a third of this decline relative to other countries is because they’re expanding family-friendly policies like paid leave and we are not.
We should be making it easier for Americans to be both good workers and good parents and caregivers. Women who want to work should be able to do so without worrying every day about how they’re going to take care of their children or what will happen if a family member gets sick.
This is a theme that the White House also touched on in the most recent Economic Report of the President. Labor-force participation for American women in their prime working years peaked in the mid-1990s, then started a gradual decline. We've been surpassed by France, Canada, Germany, and the United Kingdom. And economists Lawrence Kahn and Francine Blau have found that far more of our women would likely be working if our social policies looked a little more European.
If you want to increase growth in the long term, getting more people into the labor force is one of the most straightforward ways to do it. (Rule of thumb: An economy's total potential to expand equals workforce growth plus productivity growth.) And given that we have specific evidence of how we could get more women onto the job market, reversing the attrition we've seen over the past couple decades should be low-hanging fruit. That's not to say our aim should be to increase participation or work hours at all costs—Obamacare, for instance, probably decreases full-time work a bit by letting some people obtain insurance without it, which is probably a worthwhile trade-off. But it should be a major policy focus for any incoming president, and it's a way to tie what might seem like slightly fuzzy, family-friendly policies into the question of how the U.S. can get back into economic shape.
As Clinton put it today: "It’s time to recognize that quality, affordable child care is not a luxury—it’s a growth strategy." Indeed.