As supporters of abortion rights raised concerns about women’s economic power in light of the Supreme Court’s potential reversal of Roe v. Wade, women accounted for 65% of the 428,000 new jobs added to the economy in April, according to Friday’s jobs report.
A question mark in the April jobs report is what to make of the U.S. workforce shrinking for the first time in seven months. Is the lower labor-force participation rate — the percentage of people ages 16 and up who have a job or are looking for work — a blip? Or is it something else?
An even bigger question is what happens to that labor-force participation rate for women if the high court overturns Roe, the 1973 ruling recognizing the constitutional right to abortion. How many woman will stay in the workforce if abortion access is curtailed in their state, and what would that mean for their earnings potential?
A leaked draft of the highly anticipated ruling expected in June or July shows the high court’s conservative wing is ready to overturn Roe and hand decisions about abortion access back to state legislators and voters. The Supreme Court confirmed that the draft document was authentic, but said it didn’t represent a final decision.
Abortion-rights advocates say Roe’s overruling would have “devastating” financial consequences for many women, particularly low-income women and women of color. Anti-abortion advocates question that there would be a financial toll, not to mention some of the research indicating such a toll.
As of April, 62.2% of the country’s population ages 16 and up that was able to have a job was either working or looking for work, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s down from 62.4% in March, and more than a full percentage point off pre-pandemic levels.
In an economy that’s still 1.2 million jobs short of where it was pre-pandemic, the participation rates for men and women haven’t fully returned for either group.
Men’s participation rate was 69% in February 2020 and 68% in the latest labor figures. Women’s participation rate was 56.7% in April, 1.2 percentage points off the 57.9% rate in February 2020.
Caregiving duties — especially in the pandemic’s earlier stages — have “weighed substantially” on labor-force participation, particularly for women, according to Federal Reserve research.
Woman accounted for 278,000 of April’s new jobs, and they had a 3.5% unemployment rate overall, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Taking the long view, labor-force participation rates for women were on the rise for decades, but peaked in the late 1990s and early-to-mid-2000s around the 60% mark before edging down.
In the pile of amicus briefs in the underlying Supreme Court case challenging Mississippi’s abortion ban after 15 weeks, economists supporting Roe’s upholding wrote that “abortion legalization had large effects on women’s education, labor force participation, occupations, and earnings. These effects were particularly strong among Black women.”
During the 1970s and 1980s, access to abortion and contraception “did have a direct impact on higher labor-force participation for women,” said Kate Bahn, the director of labor-market policy and chief economist at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, a left-leaning research and grantmaking nonprofit.
“‘Limiting bodily autonomy is bad for people who have babies and are primary caretakers, bad for human rights, and bad for the economy.’”
But would a lack of abortion access mean fewer women in the workforce now? Bahn, who says Roe needs to stay intact, has her doubts.
“I’m not certain that we would see that labor-force participation effect, but I think we would see an effect on exactly where women work,” she said. “It may not necessarily affect the decision to work. But it remains to be seen.”
The places where women could increasingly work, however, would be lower-paying jobs with lower chances for upward mobility if they are juggling a child from an unplanned pregnancy, she said. In a 2019 article, Bahn looked into the economic side effects of recent state laws restricting abortion. The laws in more-restrictive states reduced women’s chances of moving to a higher-paying job by 7.6%, her research found.
“Limiting bodily autonomy is bad for people who have babies and are primary caretakers, bad for human rights, and bad for the economy,” Bahn told MarketWatch.
Roe’s reversal could be “potentially devastating,” C. Nicole Mason, the president and CEO of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, said earlier this week. “It will also dramatically impact the ability of women to participate fully in the American economy by reducing their labor-force participation, cutting into their earnings, and increasing turnover.”
Joel Griffith, a research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, sees it differently, given the trending down that was happening for women. If Roe’s overturning has any impact on women’s workforce participation one way or another, he said, it will be marginal. “This will likely have little, if any, impact,” Griffith said.
“Independent contractor and gig work may not ‘show up neatly in the traditional job numbers.’”
If the final Supreme Court ruling is anything like the draft, it would be a “win for federalism,” said Patrice Onwuka, the director of the Center for Economic Opportunity at the Independent Women’s Forum, a think tank that supports limited government.
The organization does not have a stance on abortion, Onwuka said. Still, the draft opinion serves as “an important reminder that voters should be deciding what’s happening in their state, not the federal government making federal policy that affects everyone,” she said.
With or without state-level laws on abortion access, the formal government numbers on labor-force participation might not be capturing the full scope of work women are doing as they juggle motherhood and income, she added.
“For some women, they don’t want to work a full-time job. They don’t want to work a traditional W-2 job,” Onwuka said. Independent contractor and gig work may not “show up neatly in the traditional job numbers,” she said. “That doesn’t mean they are not gainfully employed. That doesn’t mean that they are not earning income. … That’s about independence, and I think that’s something we should celebrate.”