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Women of color and women with children disproportionately left the labor force during the COVID-19 pandemic

Differences in child care responsibilities and pre-pandemic jobs contributed to larger labor force effects on Latina women and Black women

February 28, 2022

Authors

Katie Lim Economist, Community Development and Engagement
Mike Zabek Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System
Women of color and women with children disproportionately left the labor force during the COVID-19 pandemic, key image
Gabe Walker/Getty Images

Article Highlights

  • Latina women and Black women were more likely to leave the labor force than White women
  • Women living with young children had larger increases in labor force exits
  • Presence of children contributes to higher exits among women of color
Women of color and women with children disproportionately left the labor force during the COVID-19 pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic led to unprecedented employment declines as major economic activities were curtailed in the name of public health. Many previously employed women left the labor force during the second half of 2020, and the patterns of labor force exits show stark differences across different groups of women. Notably, women of color experienced higher rates of labor force exits than White women. These patterns are consistent with layoffs early in the pandemic that more severely affected Latina women and Black women.

Labor force exits also increased more among women living with children, with the largest effects seen among women living with children under age six and lower-earning women living with school-aged children. Labor force exits associated with the presence of children were more common among Latina women and Black women, and these exits explain around one-fourth of the labor force exits above pre-pandemic rates among Latina women and Black women relative to White women.

Read more

For a more detailed discussion of pandemic labor force participation patterns for women by race, ethnicity, and the presence of children, see the authors’ recent working paper.

Women of color were more likely to leave the labor force than White women

Among those employed before the pandemic, the initial decline in labor force participation among Latina women and Black women was more than twice as large as for White women. See Figure 1. Those declines were also quite persistent relative to White women and men of color. From January 2020 to January 2021, the labor force participation rate for Black women and Latina women declined by 4.5 percentage points, while the decline for White women was 1.5 percentage points. (See Panel A of Figure 1.) In contrast, the declines in labor force participation rates for previously employed men of color were mostly reversed by late 2020, with overall labor force declines of 1 to 2 percentage points by January 2021. (See Panel B of Figure 1.) The relative declines for men of all races and ethnicities by January 2021 were between 1 and 2 percentage points.

1

Previously employed women of color had large and persistent declines in labor force participation
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Note: Three-month moving average labor force participation rates are plotted for previously employed 25- to 54-year-old (prime-working-age) women and men, broken out by race and ethnicity. Each is adjusted for monthly seasonality based on average monthly values from January 2003 to February 2020. Statistics are weighted using sampling weights.
Source: Authors’ calculations based on Current Population Survey data downloaded from IPUMS Flood et al. 2020

Understanding women’s labor force exits

What explains the higher rate of labor force exits among women of color?1 In particular, Latina women had pre-pandemic jobs that were associated with COVID-19 employment disruptions. They were more likely to work in occupations and industries, such as leisure and hospitality, that had larger employment losses and less remote work.2 Similarly, workers with less education and lower earnings had higher initial employment losses during the pandemic. Around 15 percent of Latina women had less than a high school degree, compared to 5 percent of Black women and 2 percent of White women. Additionally, Latina women earned an average weekly wage of $780, compared with $990 for all women. Latina women were also more likely than other women to be living with children.

These variables also predicted more severe impacts among Black women, though to a smaller degree than for Latina women. In particular, Black women were less likely than White women to be in occupations and industries where working from home as a result of COVID-19 was more common. Black women also earned substantially less, had lower average education levels than White women, and were less likely to be married.3

Women living with young children were more likely to leave the labor force

Previously employed women living with young children saw the sharpest declines in labor force participation, followed by women living with school-age children. See Figure 2. Previously employed women in households with no children under age 13 have labor force participation rates that are only around 1 percentage point lower than before the pandemic. In comparison, labor force participation rates among women with children ages six to 12 were 3 percentage points lower, and women in households with children ages zero to five saw a 5 percentage-point decline. In contrast, previously employed men saw initial labor force participation declines of 2 percentage points, regardless of whether there were children in the household. (See Figure 2, Panel B.)

2

Previously employed women living with children had large and persistent declines in labor force participation
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Note: Three-month moving average labor force participation rates are plotted for previously employed 25- to 54-year-old (prime-working-age) women and men by the presence of children ages zero–five years and six–12 years before the pandemic. Each is adjusted for monthly seasonality based on average monthly values from January 2003 to February 2020. Statistics are weighted using sampling weights.
Source: Authors’ calculations based on Current Population Survey data downloaded from IPUMS Flood et al. 2020

When we focus on excess labor force exits during 2020 and early 2021, or exits above pre-pandemic rates of labor force exits, we find that women who live with children experienced greater increases in their exit rates during the pandemic, even after adjusting for other factors.4 We find that the effects of other factors, including industry and occupational impacts of COVID-19, pre-pandemic wage level, and educational attainment, are statistically undetectable and economically modest. Increases in exit rates are largest for those living with children under age six and for lower-earning women with school-aged children.

Figure 3 displays how the estimated effect of living with children on excess labor force exits varies by marital status, the age of the children, and earnings. Focusing on women with average weekly earnings, we estimate that labor force exits were 5.2 percentage points larger for non-married women living with young children than for similar women not living with children under age 13. For married women, young children were associated with a 2.9 percentage-point larger increase in exits. And for women with lower earnings, the presence of children is associated with even larger labor force exits. The effect of earnings on exits is larger for women living with school-aged children, which may be related to school closures representing a loss of school as a mode of child care. These estimated effects are large relative to the overall 1 percentage-point increase in labor force exits among women not living with children during the pandemic.

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Children contribute to higher exits among women of color

Differences in the types of jobs that women had before the pandemic explain just part of the higher labor force exits among women of color. As displayed in Figure 4, after adjusting for a number of factors, including the presence of children and women’s pre-pandemic occupations and industries, we find that Latina women were 1.2 percentage points more likely to exit the labor force than White women, and Black women were 1 percentage point more likely.5 When we remove controls that account for differences in the types of jobs women held pre-pandemic, the estimated gaps increase by 0.6 percentage points for Latina women and 0.4 percentage points for Black women. When we further remove controls that account for the effect of living with children, including the differential effect of children on women with different marital status and earnings, the estimates increase by 0.7 and 0.3 percentage points for Latina women and Black women, respectively. Together, these results suggest that a combination of disproportionate child care responsibilities and differences in women’s pre-pandemic jobs contributed to the larger labor force impacts of the pandemic on Latina women and Black women.

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Looking ahead

It is vital to understand how pandemic-related public health concerns, government-mandated shutdowns, and widespread societal changes will affect women’s careers and lives. Before COVID-19’s arrival, rising labor demand led to disproportionate increases in the labor force participation of mothers and workers of color.6 The pandemic seems to have erased some of these employment gains.

The pandemic experience has generated momentum for rethinking caregiving and its impacts on the economy and addressing racial and ethnic inequalities in our economic system. Our findings highlight the necessity of reliable child care in encouraging women’s labor force participation. They point to interventions that support the child care market and improve reliability and accessibility. Understanding the drivers of differential labor force exits by mothers and women of color during the COVID-19 recession will be an important step in addressing broader disparities during the economic recovery.


Endnotes

1 With the exception of exits, age, and education, the values come from the last Current Population Survey interview before March 2020.

2 For example, Latina women worked in occupations where, on average, 27 percent of their male colleagues were working from home in the summer of 2020, compared with 38 percent of White women.

3 These statistics reflect the effect of broader economic and social inequalities on women and families.

4 The findings in this section rely on the results from a linear probability model comparing exits between September 2020 and February 2021 to those between 2015 and 2019. Specifically, the estimates represent the change in the probability of exiting the labor force (pandemic vs. pre-pandemic) for women with a certain characteristic relative to the change experienced by other women. For example, we estimate how the exits change for women living with children relative to how they changed for women with no children in the household. For more details, please see our working paper.

5 These estimates have a wide margin of error, however, and we cannot rule out the possibility that there are no differences.

6 From the U.S. Department of Labor Tableau visualization.

Katie Lim
Economist, Community Development and Engagement

Katherine Lim is an economist in Community Development and Engagement, where she conducts policy-relevant research to benefit low- and moderate-income workers. Her prior work includes research on self-employment and women’s labor force participation.