Female Unhappiness and Revealed Preference

At Double X, the womens-interest section of Slate, Sharon Lerner argues that America's workplace policies are responsible for a decline in happiness among women:

The United States is a glaring exception in the developed world and beyond in having no mandatory paid maternity leave, no nationwide childcare system, few flexible work options, and, as we’ve heard lately, no universal health coverage. So while mothers in the Czech Republic can choose between having their paid leave stretch either from one to three years after giving birth, and every French parent can count on low- or no-cost preschool, women in the United States are bearing the brunt of working motherhood with far fewer supports.

It's certainly a plausible-seeming theory. But it directly contradicts the paper from which the factoid about womens' happiness is taken. Justin Wolfers and Betsey Stevenson are quite explicit about their findings:

There are no statistically significant differences in the trends for women with and without children nor are their differences between these groups in the trend in happiness for men (or the subsequent trend in the happiness gap). Along with the decline in marriage has come a rise in single parenthood, both through growth in out-of-wedlock births and through divorce. Thus, we disaggregate the fertility results to consider trends in happiness separately among single parents and married parents, and, to account for the duel burden of working parents, between employed parents and non-employed parents. Once again, we see similar trends in happiness across these groups, casting doubt on the hypothesis that trends in marriage and divorce, single parenthood, or work-family balance are at the root of the happiness declines among women.

Moreover, it's a bit strange to look to this study for support for European policy. Virtually the same trends are observed in Europe as in the United States. (Note: While women in the U.S. report a slight decline and women in Europe a small increase, I would caution against reading too much into that; for one thing, the questions asked in the surveys are not identical.)

These increases in subjective well-being have been experienced to a greater degree by men, leading to a pervasive decline in well-being among women relative to men. Indeed, women’s happiness fell relative to men’s in all but one of the countries in the sample, and while the pattern is by no means uniform, the magnitudes are remarkably similar. The only exception to this rule is West Germany, although even there, the data are not clear cut.

The Stevenson-Wolfers paper is fascinating and well worth reading. The cause of this gender gap in happiness is an interesting discussion to have. But this paper doesn't lend easy support to any side of the political debate, weak attempts to do so notwithstanding.

But there's an even more fundamental question I'd like to ask: Is it really true that the United States is hostile to working mothers? The question itself seems ridiculous, in light of European family policies. And yet, here's an interesting tidbit from Lerner's article:

While an American woman still typically has around 2.1 children over her lifetime, in other rich countries, family size has dropped significantly as women have gained access to jobs and education. More than 90 nations throughout Europe and Asia now have fertility rates well below ours. Second, even while we’ve continued to raise sizable families, American women have achieved the very highest rate of full-time employment in the world, with 75 percent of employed women working full-time.

So while the United States is supposedly so bad for working mothers, the women (1) have more kids, and (2) work more. At least superficially, then, it seems as though the U.S. is better for working mothers, not worse.

Now, one can certainly argue against this behavioral argument. Maybe men in the U.S. are so poorly paid relative to Europeans that the women have to work. (I think this is clearly untrue.) Or maybe the lack of universal health care means people don't want to risk only having one person with employer-provided insurance (more plausible to me). But the burden of proof is clearly on those who claim the U.S. is on a whole worse for working mothers, since so many more of them seem to be choosing the lifestyle. And the question of how the U.S. might really be better for working women is an interesting one, but one I think I'll defer, since this is getting long already.

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