In President Donald Trump’s lengthy State of the Union address Tuesday, one of the lines that received the loudest bipartisan applause was when Trump celebrated job gains for women.
“No one has benefited more from our thriving economy than women, who have filled 58 percent of the new jobs created in the last year. All Americans can be proud that we have more women in the workforce than ever before.”
Democrats — and many Republicans — jumped from their seats and applauded.
Trump added, “Don’t sit yet: You’re gonna like this. . . . We also have more women serving in Congress than at any time before,” which launched even more cheers, especially from Democratic congresswomen, and chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!”
There’s just one problem: America’s female labor force participation rate is not at an all-time high. It’s so low that leaders of other countries make fun of the United States for not having more women in the workforce.
When Trump said the United States has “more women in the workforce than ever before,” he was referring to the fact that 76.8 million women are employed. That is the most ever, but it just means the female population has been growing.
America’s female labor force participation rate peaked at 60.3 percent in 2000. It is now 57.5 percent. (This is the proportion of women 16 and older who are working or actively searching for employment).
What’s particularly striking is that the United States used to be a leader in getting women into the working world. In 1985, the United States ranked second — behind only Sweden — for labor force participation of women in their prime working years (ages 25 to 54). Today the United States has fallen to ninth place, behind Germany, Canada, Australia, Japan and others.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe recently took a swipe at Trump (and prior U.S. presidents) for America’s poor track record.
“The rate of female labor participation has hit 67 percent, an all-time high for Japan and higher than, say, in the U.S.,” Abe said in a speech at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland in late January.
As the U.S. Labor Department has chronicled, women’s labor force participation grew rapidly from the 1960s to 2000 but then plateaued. The International Monetary Fund (among many other organizations) says boosting the rate of working women would generate a huge bump in growth. It’s especially critical for countries like the United States, Japan and Germany that have aging populations with fewer people likely to be in the workforce in the coming years.
Other nations have introduced parental leave and universal preschool to make it easier for working parents. The United States remains the only advanced economy that has no paid maternity leave.
Trump also received a lot of bipartisan applause Tuesday when he said he was “proud to be the first president to include in my budget a plan for nationwide paid family leave.” But he didn’t call on Congress to pass legislation to make it happen, and he quickly turned to the more divisive issue of abortion.
Democrat Stacey Abrams, who gave the official Democratic response, also did not call explicitly for paid parental leave.
Women’s labor force participation has risen slightly in the past year — from 56.7 percent in January 2018 to 57.5 percent in January 2019. But it’s still far below the male rate of 69.3 percent, and the Labor Department predicts only modest gains through 2024, mostly from women older than 55 staying in the workforce.
There has been widespread attention to American men dropping out of the labor force because of blue-collar job losses and opioid addiction. Now there’s hope the focus will turn to increasing women’s participation.
Missouri Republican Rep. Ann Wagner shouted “Yes!” when Trump mentioned paid parental leave, a reminder of the bipartisan appeal.