What Hillary Clinton doesn't get about women and the workforce

It's not about pushing more women into the workforce. It's about giving everyone more options.

Hillary Clinton
(Image credit: AP Photo/David Goldman)

Democratic presidential contender Hillary Clinton delivered her first major address on the economy this week, and in the broadest terms of government policy and its relationship with the economy, she was arguably to the left of where President Obama was in 2008. But the primary response to the speech's nitty gritty was something of a bipartisan shrug.

It covered a lot of ground, but one subject that might be productive to drill down on is the question of women's participation in the workforce, and their overall work-life balance. Clinton hit on the need for national paid leave laws for sickness and family care-giving, equitable pay for women, better scheduling, and affordable childcare. All of which are good ideas! But her framing was a tad odd.

"The movement of women into the workforce over the past 40 years was responsible for more than three and a half trillion dollars in economic growth," Clinton said. But she added that "progress has stalled," and that the labor force participation of U.S. women has dropped from seventh out of 24 advanced nations to 19th.

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"That represents a lot of unused potential for our economy and for American families," she concluded.

The notion of economic growth as a kind of universal good to which various causes can be hitched is a tried-and-true bit of centrist political rhetoric. But by treating "more economic growth" as synonymous with "more general welfare," it subtly inverts the way we should think of the economy.

Time to spend time with your spouse, to raise your children, to travel with your friends or family, to work on a hobby, to volunteer in your community, to help your church — these things are also part and parcel of rising prosperity. As any society's productivity goes up, it can choose to take that increased productivity in more income, or in more time for people to spend outside of the job market. Both choices are valuable and worthy, but only one of them shows up in measures of gross domestic product.

So by framing the matter in terms of economic growth, Clinton unwittingly puts a thumb on the scale in that balancing act. More growth is good because we get more jobs, more people working is good because we get more growth — and around and around in an endless loop until we've reduced ourselves to serving the economy rather than being served by it.

In a sense, helping more women enter the labor force because more families need two earners to stay afloat is an acquiescence to an economy that's unjust and unequal at its root. Rather than giving Americans some room to push back at the markets demands, we're simply making it easier for them to meet those demands.

There's also a certain danger of elite liberal myopia here. The social and economic challenges facing women in the workforce are very real. But two-earner households are concentrated in the middle- to upper-class — along with the voters politicians on both sides of the aisle pay the most attention to — while stay-at-home moms are concentrated among poorer Americans. To some degree, that's because many can't afford the childcare that would free up the woman to work. But it's also because some of those families just like the stay-at-home mom approach as a matter of culture and values, and are taking an economic hit as a result.

When President Obama proposed a set of tax credits to help out two-earner households, conservative critics accused him of liberal social engineering, since the policies wouldn't help traditional families with one stay-at-home parent (presumably the mom), and would incentivize families away from taking that route. Even if conservatives' giant chip-on-the-shoulder mentality is playing a big role in this critique, it's not exactly wrong: Making the economy truly subservient to human needs, rather than the other way around, means making the economy as equally friendly as possible to all types of families.

Clinton's focus on freeing up women to enter the labor force is worthy, but it's also too narrow and uni-directional. She needs an approach that is both broader and more radical: giving all Americans, men and women alike, more control over when they participate and don't participate in the labor force.

Mostly, the policies Clinton outlined would be at home in this larger approach. In fact, she could take the parental leave policy further: For two-earner families, getting the full leave benefit should rest on the spouses taking a roughly equal portion of the leave. But the core of the approach would go beyond affordable childcare to a universal child benefit: an equal check given to every family for every child they have, regardless of the family's income or employment status. That could be used by a two-earner family to pay for childcare, or by a one-earner family to shore up their finances. Finland, in fact, offers a three-part benefit that can be taken as cash, or as payment for publicly or privately provided daycare.

As Elizabeth and Matt Bruenig noted a while back, a $300 per month universal benefit could cut childhood poverty in the U.S. by 42 percent. It would also be a tremendous help to poor working women, who suffer the most in the mad scramble for work at the bottom of the economy.

Feminists are leery of women staying out of the workplace because they recognize that, in American society, the overwhelming majority of our income flows from our jobs. That makes who has jobs and who doesn't a question of power. But one way to alleviate that tension is to increase the sources of income that one can rely on regardless of whether one has a job.

We don't actually know what we'd get if we aggregated all the preferences of men and all the preferences of women, and gave them all equal bargaining power in society. We might get a perfect 50-50 split in domestic and office labor, and we might not.

But assuming we would puts the cart before the horse. Rather, we should be working towards a society where men and women can negotiate with one another, with equal resources to pick their own version of the good life. And so that when they have to compromise that ideal, they can do so on their own terms.

Whether women are working less or working more is the wrong question to ask. Rather, ask if they're doing what they want to do, or what society and the economy demand they do.

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Jeff Spross

Jeff Spross was the economics and business correspondent at TheWeek.com. He was previously a reporter at ThinkProgress.