Will Obamacare Encourage More Women To Opt Out Of The Workforce?

For everyone from politicians to pundits to late-night comics, this week’s Congressional Budget Office report on the long-term impact of the Affordable Care Act on the American workforce proved even better than a Caribbean vacation at enlivening the mid-winter doldrums. Fueled by new ammunition and fulminating with righteous indignation, the usual suspects had a field day in reacting to the latest estimate that health insurance subsidies will lead to declining labor force participation.

With Republicans gloating that Obamacare will cost millions of jobs and Democrats protesting that the reduction in work hours will be voluntary, righteous indignation abounds on all sides. “People should be chained by the need for health insurance to jobs they hate — that’s what built this country!” Stephen Colbert declared on The Colbert Report last night.

But whether the response is serious or facetious, what’s being omitted from the discussion is any substantive consideration of the role played by gender. Some commentators acknowledge that many of the “people” under discussion are parents who may leave full-time employment if they choose to work less.

In the name of free choice, analysts typically view this as a good thing, Colbert notwithstanding. “People mostly know what’s good for them,” observed Clive Crook in today’s Bloomberg News. “It’s a fair working assumption that people are the best judge of their own welfare.”

Oh, really? That may seem like a reasonable statement if you’re a privileged white male in the prime of life, but the view looks very different if you’re an older woman with painful personal experience of how things tend to work out for American women over the long run.

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Studies consistently show that many women, if given the choice, will choose to work fewer hours in order to devote more time to their families. At the time, this often seems like a sensible response to the competing needs of jobs and children, particularly when exacerbated by the pressures of inadequate wages, expensive child care and inflexible workplace demands. If you ask women in the middle of their lives how the decision to sacrifice work for family has turned out, many will insist it was a good choice for them and their children.

But if you ask them again two or three or four decades later, they often give a radically different answer — one that is frequently accompanied by searing regret and a liberal helping of terror. It may take decades for the cost of giving up paid work to become fully apparent, but once it does, the picture can be bleak indeed.

The reality is that women pay a fearsome economic price for such self-sacrificing choices in their later years, when twice as many older women fall below the poverty line, compared with men. Having enough time to decorate homemade cupcakes for the school bake sale can feel like a good thing when you’re 40, but it may not seem as important if you’re broke and alone at 70 or 80, particularly if the children for whom you sacrificed your own self-interest prove unable or unwilling to return the favor — let alone if you actually outlive your offspring, as many women do these days.

Older women are also far more likely than men to lack partners who can help fortify their financial circumstances. More than three-quarters of older men are married, compared with less than half of older women.

As scary as things look for women right now, they’re only getting worse. Boomer women are increasingly affected by the dramatic upsurge in the growing phenomenon of “gray divorce,” which more than doubled in recent years. In 1990, fewer than 10 percent of divorces affected those 50 or older, but today one in four divorces involves that age group.

As women’s life spans grow ever longer, other trends become ever more worrisome, from the decline of livable pensions to doubts about the long-term viability of Social Security to the dismal statistics on the failure of most Americans to save enough money to safeguard their retirement. Whether voluntary or unwanted, the average age of retirement in the United States is 61. Even if you’ve worked full-time for 40 years, it’s excruciatingly difficult — not to mention rare — to save enough money for a non-working life that can span another forty years, particularly for women. Ask any boomer; most of us haven’t had a father for decades, but a growing percentage of newly-certified senior citizens have mothers in their nineties, many of whom have run out of money.

When The Today Show gave up its longtime practice of celebrating the 100th birthday of chosen viewers, one reason was that such milestones used to be very rare, but there are now too many centenarians to keep up with. The New York Times reported a while back that today’s women should expect to live an average of 13 years longer than their mothers did. When my mother died at 87, that arguably gave me a projected lifespan of 100 and counting — a prospect whose economic implications fill me with dread.

Viewed individually, all these trends have troubling implications for women, but in the aggregate the consequences can prove devastating. So whose “welfare” are we talking about when we claim that people do a good job of judging what’s good for them?

Given the choice between their own welfare and that of their children, women typically put the interests of the whole family ahead of what might benefit them personally. Many men also make important sacrifices for their families, but even the most cursory analysis of the cold hard numbers will show that the outcome tends to be far less punishing for men than for women.

In today’s New York Times, Ross Douthat quotes Tyler Cowen in acknowledging the possibility that “people undervalue the longterm benefits of having a job.”

When the “people” in question are female, the longterm consequences of that miscalculation can be terrible.

Leslie Bennetts is the author of THE FEMININE MISTAKE: Are We Giving Up Too Much?, which documented the longterm costs of economic dependency and the benefits of paid work for women.

Worried mother pulling her hair photo (Shutterstock)

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