During a speech in Columbus, Ohio, on Tuesday, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton launched a major attack on the economic record of her Republican rival, Donald Trump.
The speech went over some by-now familiar ground about Trump’s business record, as well as his controversial positions on issues such as government debt and the minimum wage.
And at one point, Clinton took on Trump’s views about women in the workforce.
Polls suggest that Trump already has punishingly low support among female voters, and the Clinton campaign has worked hard to aggravate his troubles by emphasizing some of the less temperate remarks he has made over the years about women.
In her remarks, Clinton suggested that Trump didn’t understand the importance of female workers to the U.S. economy.
“Now these are the words not of someone who thinks highly of women who work or who cares about helping parents balance work and family, but instead he clearly doesn’t know much about how we have grown the economy over the last 40 years, which is largely thanks to women getting into the workforce and adding to family incomes.”
Is Clinton’s claim true that recent economic growth was “largely” due to women entering the workforce?
The Short Answer
The entry of women into the workforce in large numbers in recent decades has represented a major economic and demographic change.
It’s helped fuel a gradual realization around the world about the role that women can play in stimulating economic growth.
Whether this shift is “largely” responsible for growth over the past 40 years, however, seems less certain. Other factors, such as technological change and increasing education levels, have also helped economic growth.
The Long Answer
From 1975 to 2013, women’s participation in the American labor force rose from 46 to 57 percent while the rate for men fell from 78 to 70 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Much of the increase in household income in recent decades can be traced to the rise in the number of two-income families, says Diane Swonk of DS Economics.
This has not been lost on other countries, Swonk says. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made increasing the number of working women a central part of his effort to revive his country’s economy. The global interest in microlending — issuing very small loans to would-be entrepreneurs — is to a great degree aimed at encouraging women in poor countries to start small businesses.
“There’s no question that women entering the labor force was a major demographic shift, and it changed a lot of things that other countries look at now and say, ‘Wow, we wish we had done that,’ ” Swonk says.
The Clinton campaign pointed to a McKinsey & Co. study that says “since women’s participation in the workforce took off, in the 1970s, their productivity has accounted for about a quarter of current GDP.”
Economist Jared Bernstein, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget, says that since 1975, real U.S. economic growth has been about 3 percent a year. About a third of that is due to the increase in the labor force, of which the rise of working women has been a major factor.
But Bernstein says about two-thirds of that growth has been due to increased productivity. Because of capital investment, gains in technology and a better-educated workforce, the U.S. economy has become more productive than it was 40 years ago, he says.
In other words, the entry of so many women into the labor force has represented a sizable and important change in the U.S. economy, one that probably hasn’t been fully appreciated by many people.