Data shows mothers with young children leading female labor market resurgence

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Mothers with young children are helping to lead a spike in female participation in the labor force, according to a new study from a D.C.-based think tank. 

The Hamilton Project, an economic policy initiative of the Brookings Institution, said this month that a recent analysis of labor force participation showed the “[labor participation] rate for prime-age women” had recently “exceeded its all-time high” after dipping during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In a controlled analysis of those data, the researchers found that “prime-aged women,” which it defines as women between the ages of 25 and 54, were leading the “overall” rebound of labor participation in recently surveyed months and that among them, “women whose youngest child is under the age of 5” are leading that demographic’s resurgence.

“Overall, growth in participation among mothers with young children since 2020 exceeds other prime-age women when differentiated by the age of one’s youngest child,” the study determined. 

The study found other notable demographic shifts, including that unmarried and married mothers with young children are increasingly participating in the labor force at equal rates. The change is occurring after years of unmarried mothers working at considerably higher rates. 

“From 2016 through 2019, the average labor force participation rate for married women with young children was 63.2% and for unmarried women with young children was 72.6%,” the Hamilton Project said. 

Yet “in the first six months of 2023, married women with young children had a labor force participation rate of 69.0%, and it was 72.1% for those unmarried.”

The convergence happened due to both the sharp decline in working unmarried mothers in 2020 coupled with an increase in both married and unmarried working mothers in the following years, according to data graphs produced by the Hamilton Project. 

The researchers noted that “labor force participation among mothers with young children has always been and continues to be lower than those without children or who have older children,” a factor they said was changing due to “tight labor markets, the changing nature of and compensation for work, evolving norms around working, and the need to work when one’s children are young.” 

The researchers further noted that “work-from-home flexibilities that make it easier for mothers to take and keep a job” could be driving the spike in labor force participation.

The study argued that the U.S. could do more to advance a “universal paid maternity leave” policy. The Brookings Institution has in the past argued in favor of such policies, which are common throughout Western European countries. 

Family leave policies are broadly popular throughout the U.S., though a patchwork of state and federal laws offers relatively few leave options for many workers, male or female. 

A Pew poll from several years ago showed that “more than 80% of adult Americans surveyed believe that women should have paid maternity leave,” while “just under 70% support paid paternity leave.”

Catholic leaders have regularly expressed broad support for family leave policies. In 2018 the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said that it “encouraged and welcomed” efforts to figure out “how best to provide paid leave policies for new parents.”

The Vatican, meanwhile, offers a generous five-month maternity leave policy for new mothers, as well as a three-day paternity leave policy for fathers with new children.

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