Opt-Out Hype

Heather Boushey
TomPaine.com, December 7, 2005

Are more and more mothers quitting their jobs when they have kids? Despite some recent media hype, mothers are actually less likely to leave the labor market today because of their children than even a few years ago.

Recent media coverage over whether moms are more likely to “opt out” of employment is simply hype, based on anecdote and examination of mothers' participation in the labor force in isolation of overall labor market trends. The idea that more mothers are opting out might make for provocative headlines, but there is no evidence that it is an actual trend.

The reality is that mothers are now less likely to leave the labor market because of their children. Even among professional, 30-something new mothers, there is no indication of an increase in opting out.

The opt-out stories are compelling because they appear to explain recent declines in mothers’ labor force participation rates—the share of Americans either at work or searching for work. However, participation rates have not only fallen for mothers, but also for childless women, childless men and fathers. There are currently 4.1 million fewer people at work than would have been if the economy were doing as well as it was in 2000.

These raw data, however, do not tell us whether falling labor force participation rates are due to changes in the impact of motherhood or other factors. To evaluate this question, we must separate out the effects of having children from other trends—including greater immigration, higher educational attainment levels, and the robustness of the labor market. After doing so, we find that the impact of having children in the home on women’s labor force participation (the “child penalty”) has become progressively smaller over the past two decades, and there is nothing to indicate that it is motherhood that is keeping women out of the workforce.

Even over the period since 2000, when mothers’ labor force participation fell, the child penalty continued its long-term downward trend. In 2004, the labor force participation rate of women age 25 to 44 with children at home averaged 8.2 percentage points less than for women without children at home, while in 2000, it averaged 9.9 percentage points.

Professional, 30-something mothers have been the primary focus of recent media attention, but here, too, there is absolutely no evidence of an increase in their propensity to opt out. These mothers have the smallest child penalty of any category and are more likely to work than other mothers. Between 2000 and 2004, there is no statistically significant change in their child penalty—meaning that they are no more likely to opt out today because of children than they were in 2000.

The data stand in opposition to the media frenzy on this topic. In spite of the personal anecdotes highlighted in various news stories, women are not increasingly dropping out of the labor force because of their kids. The main reason for declining labor force participation rates among women over the last four years appears to be the weakness of the labor market.

The recession of the early 2000s led to sustained job losses for all women—those with and without children at home—and by early 2005, the labor market had only just returned to its 2000 employment level, almost exactly four years after the recession began. During this recession, women experienced their largest employment losses in decades, and women lost a disproportionate share of the jobs in the industries hit hardest by the recession.

For many mothers, the slack labor market has not only meant fewer jobs, but also an inability to find a job with the benefits or flexibility needed to support a family both economically and emotionally. The majority of children are being raised in a home where both their parents are working, creating a time crunch at home and added stress when there is no one available to take time off work to care for a sick child or attend a parent-teacher meeting. Hoping for an opt out by mothers is not going to change this. Rather than hyping anecdotes, we’d be better off focusing on solutions for the very real struggles families face in finding the time and resources to care for one another.

Heather Boushey is a Senior Economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, DC.