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The reversal of the employment-population ratio in the 2000s: facts and explanations.

ABSTRACT The decline in the employment-population ratios for men and women over 2000-07, just before the Great Recession, represents a historic turnaround in U.S. employment trends. The decline is disproportionately concentrated among the less educated and younger groups within the male and the female populations and, for women, especially among unmarried women without children. About half of the decline among men can be explained by declines in wage rates and by changes in nonlabor income and family structure, but the decline among women is more difficult to explain and requires distinguishing between married and unmarried women and between those with and without children, as these subgroups have experienced quite different wage and employment trends. Neither changes in taxes nor changes in government transfers appear likely to explain the employment declines, with the possible exception of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Other influences such as the minimum wage and health factors do not appear to play a role, but increases in incarceration may have contributed to the decline among men.

There are many indicators of trends and cycles in the labor market. The unemployment rate is the primary indicator used in analyzing cyclical changes, but for long-term trends the employment-population ratio is the best indicator of the quantity of labor supplied. When one compares one cyclical peak with the next, thus holding the unemployment rate more or less fixed, the employment-population ratio necessarily reflects the labor force participation rate, which is the common measure of labor supply. Long-term trends in the employment-population ratio can therefore likewise be taken as reflecting trends in labor supply.

This study examines the decline in the employment-population ratio from 2000 to 2007, just before the Great Recession began. The ratio for the overall working-age population (that is, for both men and women aged 16-64) stood at 74.1 percent in 2000 and at 71.8 percent in 2007. The decline was greater among the younger and less educated of both sexes. This drop in the ratio represents a historic reversal from its upward trend over the previous 30 years and hence constitutes a major change in the U.S. labor market.

The employment-population ratio has been much discussed recently, both in the press and among researchers and policymakers, because it underwent a further, even sharper decline during the Great Recession, falling 9.0 percentage points to 65.8 percent at its low point in January 2010 (several months after the official trough), a tremendous decline by historical standards? It has recovered only slowly since then, to about 67 percent in 2011. Behind this trend is a decline in the labor force participation rate-a contribution to the decline in the unemployment rate but not a particularly welcome one.

The factors already at work in the decline in the employment-population ratio before the Great Recession may in part explain this slow recovery since. Indeed, James Stock and Mark Watson (2012) predict that, should the long-term downward trend in the ratio continue, future recessions are likely to be deeper and future recoveries slower. More immediately, if the long-term decline continues, the employment-population ratio may not return to its 2007 value even when the recovery is judged complete.

The reversal of the employment-population ratio in the 2000s has received little formal study. In a session at the American Economic Association meetings in January 2012, Henry Farber reported his finding that changes in the age-sex-education composition of the population could explain no more than a quarter of the decline, and Robert Shimer, noting the greater rate of decline among youth, speculated that rigid wages or intertemporal substitution between the pre- and post-2000 periods could be partly responsible.2 David Autor (2010) finds that changes in the ratio over 1979-2007 as well as over the subperiod after 2000 are positively correlated with changes in wages, suggesting a conventional labor supply explanation. Diane Macunovich (2010) finds a significant decline in female labor supply from 1999-2001 to 2007-09, particularly among unmarried women without children, but also finds that conventional explanatory variables (wage rates, number of children per household, and others) account for very little of this change. Stephanie Aaronson and others (2006) examine the aggregate labor force participation rate through 2005, finding that demographic, cyclical, and structural factors probably contributed to the recent downturn in that rate.

Trends in the labor supply of women have been extensively studied. The recent literature has noted that although female labor supply has historically exhibited strong growth, that growth slowed in the 1990s, prompting some observers to ask whether it has plateaued (Goldin 2006). Discussions of the slowdown have mainly focused on whether wage elasticities of labor supply and other coefficients in female labor supply equations have changed over time and are responsible. Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn (2007) find that the wage elasticity for married women declined noticeably from the 1980s to the 1990s, bringing it closer to that for men. More relevant to the post-2000 period are studies such as those by Kelly Bishop, Bradley Heim, and Kata Mihaly (2009), Heim (2007), and Macunovich (2010), who examine whether wage elasticities were falling after 2000. Among these studies, those whose sample period ends in 2002 or 2003 find failing wage elasticities, whereas the one study (Macunovich 2010) that ends in 2007-09 finds a slight increase after 2000. Complicating inference from these studies is that in each case the ending year was at a different point in the business cycle than the beginning. More relevant for present purposes is whether trends in one aspect of labor supply--the employment- population ratio--can be explained by changes in observed variables rather than changes in coefficients. (3)

Another strand of the literature for women has focused on a so-called opt-out revolution among well-educated and professional married women, whose labor force participation rates fell in the 2000s.4 This line of argument speculates that more-educated women are increasingly deciding to stay at home to engage in childrearing rather than engage in market work. Some research has investigated this hypothesis, but very little attempts to search specifically for variables that might have caused the decline (Antecol 2011, Bousey 2008, Macunovich 2010). Claudia Goldin (2006) notes that it may take several years to see whether recent cohorts of more-educated women exhibit opt-out patterns over the remainder of their working lives.

In this paper I conduct an analysis of the decline in the employment-population ratio through 2007, with two parts. First, I describe in detail the patterns of this decline, including those by time period as well as by demographic group (as defined by age, sex, education, and race) and other characteristics. This analysis reveals that the decline is disproportionately concentrated among the young and the less educated of both sexes. The decline is particularly strong among unmarried women without children. Second, I conduct an investigation into the proximate causes of the decline. About half of the decline of the male employment-population ratio can be explained by declines in wage rates and changes in nonlabor income and family structure. The factors responsible for the decline in the ratio among women are more difficult to explain and require separate examination of wage and employment trends for married and unmarried women and for those with and without children, as these subgroups exhibit different patterns of employment and wage change. I also find that neither changes in taxes nor changes in government transfers appear likely to explain the employment declines, with the possible exception of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (the food stamp program), nor do other influences such as the minimum wage or health factors.

I. Trends and Patterns

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) publishes statistics on the employment- population ratio drawn from the monthly interviews of the Current Population Survey (CPS), which asks all respondents aged 16 and over about their employment status during the week preceding the interview. The middle line in figure 1 shows the trend for the civilian noninstitutional population aged 16-64 from 1970 to 2011. (5) The trend in the ratio was positive, with intermittent cyclical variation, from 1970 to about 1999 or 2000. At that point it reversed course and began the decline that is the object of interest here. As noted in the introduction, the ratio declined by over 2Y2 percentage points between 2000 and 2007, then plummeted as the Great Recession began. The departure from the historical trend is dramatic and clear from the figure.


The trend in the overall ratio masks quite different trends by sex, as the figure also shows. The ratio for men declined, on average, between 1970 and 1983, after which it remained stable until 2000, when it began a further decline. Its decline from 2000 to 2007 was 2.7 percentage points. The ratio for women, in contrast, secularly increased from 1970 to 2000, consistent with the well-known trend growth of female employment over this period. After 2000 it stopped growing and declined slightly, falling by 1.7 percentage points by 2007. The decline was therefore smaller in magnitude for women than for men, but the deviation from the pre-2000 trend was greater.

This study will focus on the period 2000-07, as compared with that of the 1990s, and will investigate possible causes of the reversal of the trend in the employment-population ratio from the first period to the second. An immediate issue in such an investigation is whether to attempt to explain both the trend and the cycles in the ratio, for it is clear from figure 1 that the ratio behaves procyclically. Here the focus will be on the trend and not the cycle, at least to the extent possible. To this end I select as endpoints years when the economy was roughly at the same point (the peak) in the cycle.


Figure 2 traces both the unemployment rate and the overall employment-population ratio since 1989. The unemployment rate in 2007 stood at 4.60 percent in March 2007, and in the previous expansion it came closest to this rate in March 1999 (4.61 percent). (6) Therefore, I focus on the change in the ratio between those points in time, a period that exhibits the same magnitude of decline as discussed above for 2000-07 (2.7 percentage points for men and 1.7 percentage points for women). For the period of the late 1980s and the 1990s, the lowest March unemployment rate was recorded in 1989, when it stood at 5.41 percent (it was even higher for all earlier years in the 1980s), somewhat higher than in March 1999. Nevertheless, I take the period from March 1989 to March 1999 as illustrating the trend over the 1990s. Over that period the employment-population ratio for men fell by a modest 0.9 percentage point and that for women rose by 3.6 percentage points. (7)

Movements in the overall employment-population ratio can result either from shifts in the demographic composition of the population or from shifts in the ratios for one or more such groups. Although shifts in composition are likely to be more important over periods longer than those studied here, they could also be of some importance over the 1989-2007 period and could affect the interpretation of the trends in the aggregate ratio I have thus far shown. I therefore briefly analyze the overall ratio, looking for shifts in overall composition before turning to a more thorough analysis of shifts within demographic groups. For this exercise I use the March CPS in each of the years 1989 to 2007, which collected information on the employment and labor force status of all individuals 16 and over as well as their age, level of education, race, and sex. Classifying the population into four age groups (16-24, 25-39, 40-54, and 55-64), four education groups (less than a high school diploma, high school graduates, some college, college degree or more), and three race groups (white, black, and other) allows a determination, using a standard shift-share decomposition, of how the proportions of the population in the resulting 48 demographic groups for each sex affected their aggregate employment-population ratio trends. (8) Figure 3, which plots for each sex both the actual ratio and the ratio holding composition constant at its 1999 value, shows that only small fractions of the changes in the ratios were a result of changes in composition. Slight compositional changes are observed for men during the early 1990s and during the 2000s downturn, and a somewhat larger but still small change is seen for women from 1989 to 1999.

Having established that most of the decline in the employment-population ratio from 1999 to 2007 was not a result of changes in composition, I next use the March CPS to describe the patterns of the decline in the ratio by demographic characteristic. The first and third panels of table 1 show the patterns of change from 1999 to 2007 by age, education, and sex, using the same age and education categories used for the composition exercise. (9) The magnitudes of the changes vary greatly across the cells, but some patterns can be detected. Reading down the columns, one observes that the largest employment-population declines occurred, with some exceptions, among those under 40 years old, and that the decline was more monotonic for women than for men. Among those under 40, the declines were usually sharper for those under 25. Reading across the rows, one also notes a correlation with education, with declines generally larger for those with no college than among those with at least some college. Those who were both young and less educated generally experienced the largest declines (for example, over 4 percentage points). On the other hand, declines in the ratio, even if smaller in magnitude, are also often observed for those aged 40-54 and for those with a college degree or more, in the latter case particularly for women (perhaps consistent with the opt-out revolution). Thus, the decline did not occur exclusively among the young and less educated. (10)


The patterns for 1989-99 are different, as should be expected. For men the ratio generally declines, but for most subgroups this decline is smaller in magnitude than for the 1999-2007 period, and there is a slight tendency for the difference to be greater for the younger and the less educated. For women the contrast is greater, with almost all categories showing positive trends in the ratio in this period. The difference in trends is particularly strong for younger and less educated women.

Comparisons by race (appendix table A. 1) show roughly the same patterns of decline for whites, blacks, and those of other races. The magnitudes vary considerably across racial groups, but the smaller sample sizes for some categories may play a role. Some of the largest declines are seen among black men and women, but for many age-education groups they are smaller than for white men and women than for blacks.

For the very young, some of the declines in employment may simply reflect increases in school attendance. The CPS asks its respondents aged 16-24 who report that they are not employed whether they are attending school. Table 2 shows increases in school attendance from 1999 to 2007 for men with a high school diploma or less and for all women. However, with only a couple of exceptions, the increases are smaller than during the 1989-99 period.

Some of the papers referenced in the introduction note the importance of marital status for labor supply trends, especially those of women, and the analysis below will also find major differences with respect to marital status. The employment-population ratio declined over 1999-2007 by 1.6 percentage points for married men but by almost double that, 2.9 percentage points, for unmarried men. For women the contrast was even greater: the ratio declined by only one-third of a percentage point for married women but by 2.9 percentage points for the unmarried. Thus, for both sexes, the majority of the decline was among the unmarried, not the married.

Table 3 shows the patterns of decline by marital status for each age-education category. From 1999 to 2007, married men's employment-population ratios still declined more for the youngest (16-24) and less educated groups, but the ratios for unmarried men declined more for older, less educated men. For women, although the relatively greater declines are concentrated in the younger and less educated groups among both the married and the unmarried, they are almost always considerably greater for the latter. An additional finding (not shown in the tables) is that the greater declines for unmarried women are concentrated among those without children, for whom the ratio declined by 3.5 percentage points between 1999 to 2007, compared with only 0.4 percentage point among unmarried women with children. (11) Unmarried women without children constitute about one-third of all women aged 16-64.

II. Labor Supply Models and Evidence

The workhorse model in labor economics for explaining changes in individual employment and hours of work has been the static labor supply model. In that model, enshrined in most labor economics textbooks, individuals choose whether to work at all, and how many hours to work, as a function of the market wage rate they face and the amount of nonlabor income available to them. The theoretical effect of the market wage rate on hours of work is ambiguous in sign, but that on the decision whether to work at all is unambiguously positive, whereas the predicted effect of nonlabor income on both hours and the decision to work is negative.

The empirical literature on the model is vast. Mark Killingsworth (1983) exhaustively reviewed the literature from the 1960s and 1970s; Richard Blundell and Thomas MaCurdy (1999) and Costas Meghir and David Phillips (2010) have conducted updated reviews. Unfortunately, the bulk of this literature focuses on hours of work and not on the employment decision. For hours of work, the conventional wisdom from this literature is that wage elasticities are zero or negative for prime-age men and significantly positive for women, and that income elasticities are negative for both, and greater in magnitude for women, but often not very large for either. The conclusions for men have been challenged over the years, for example, by Chinhui Juhn, Kevin Murphy, and Robert Topel (1991), and most recently by Michael Keane (2011) and by Keane and Richard Rogerson (2012). The latter study argues explicitly that wage elasticities are likely higher for the employment decision (what the authors call the "extensive margin") than for the hours decision (the "intensive margin") and are very important for the aggregate labor supply elasticity (see also Rogerson and Wallenius 2009). For women, it has long been recognized that the extensive margin is particularly important; this finding goes back to early labor supply work that separated it from the intensive margin (Mroz 1987). Meghir and Phillips (2010) also examine wage elasticities for labor force participation and find them to be larger for women than for men, but not that large even for women. It is also well known that the increase in labor supply of women over time has been particularly strong on the extensive margin.

Another literature of relevance is that on separating demand from supply influences on trends in wage differentials among men and women (Katz and Autor 1999, Acemoglu and Autor 2011). Although this literature is rarely referenced in the labor supply literature, its main focus on the correlation between wage changes and "quantity" changes--most often measured by total hours of work in a skill group--has implications for wage elasticities of labor supply. The main conclusions from that literature are that the last four or five decades have seen a trend-like expansion of the relative demand for more-skilled workers, and that with the exception of the 1970s, relative supply has shifted outward only modestly--and may even have shifted inward. This conclusion is based on the general finding of a positive correlation of wage changes with hours changes across education and experience groups, implying a positive wage elasticity of labor supply, even for men. A recent paper focusing just on the employment-population ratio within the same framework (Autor 2010) reaches the same conclusions for that ratio, finding a positive correlation with changes in wages both over 1979-2007 and over the 2000s alone.

The empirical literature on the standard labor supply model has reached many other general conclusions as well. For married women, it has been established that the husband's earnings are an important factor in her labor supply decision (Blau and Kahn 2007). The presence of young children, which tends to depress the labor supply of women, is also important, as is marital status, with unmarried women tending to work more. For men, marital status is also correlated with labor supply (at least as measured by hours of work), with married men working longer hours. The presence of young children is generally found to have less of an impact, if any, on the labor supply decisions of men than of women.

A related but important literature focuses on the impact of taxes and transfer programs on labor supply. The early literature on the effect of taxes was covered by Killingsworth (1983), and the later literature by the reviews of Blundell and MaCurdy (1999) and Meghir and Phillips (2010). All of these studies concluded, to varying degrees, that responses to changes in taxation were consistent with the literature on labor supply in general: very modest for prime-age men and somewhat larger for women. (12)

This view has been challenged recently by Keane (2011), who argues that properly specified life cycle models that incorporate returns to human capital imply larger wage elasticities. A similarly large literature focuses on the different transfer programs. My own review of the early literature (Moffitt 1992) found rather significant responses of single-mother labor supply to the availability of benefits from the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program, and research on later reforms of that program shows even larger responses (Grogger and Karoly 2005). But my review found very small effects of most other meanstested transfer programs, and a more recent review (Ben-Shalom, Moffitt, and Scholz forthcoming) is consistent with this view. The literature reaches less of a consensus on the effects of social insurance programs: very divergent estimates of the effects on work incentives of the Social Security retirement program, the Social Security disability insurance program, and unemployment insurance (UI) have been reported. The effects of UI have figured prominently in the discussion of the Great Recession, but not as much in the discussion of earlier labor supply trends.

III. Influences on Labor Supply: Wages, Other Income, and Demographics

The approach taken here in exploring the various influences on labor supply is to first examine the traditional determinants appearing in the literature- wages and nonlabor income, but supplemented with demographic determinants (marital status, presence of children, and others)--to determine whether they can explain the reversal of the trend in the employment-population ratio from 1999 to 2007 relative to 1989-99, including the patterns by age-education subgroup identified above. Section IV considers the effects of taxes and transfers. The primary data source for the analysis is again the March CPS data from 1989, 1999, and 2007, which come from random samples of approximately 145,000, 132,000, and 206,000 individuals, respectively. The household interviews collected information on all individuals aged 16 and over, from whom I select only those between the ages of 16 and 64. In addition to information on employment status in the survey week, which is used to construct a dichotomous variable for whether an individual is employed, and on demographic characteristics, I collected information on earnings and weeks of work in the calendar year before the interview week as well as on all forms of nonlabor income and other labor income received by members of the family in that prior year. (13)

The modeling approach is kept as simple as possible to increase transparency. Observations on individuals from the three yearly surveys are pooled into one data set, and ordinary least squares (OLS) regressions are estimated explaining employment status as a function of wages, nonlabor income, and demographic variables (probit regressions are also tested). Whether changes in those variables can explain the changes in the employment-population ratio from 1989 to 1999, and from 1999 to 2007, is the question then addressed, not only for aggregate changes in the ratio but also for the pattern of age-education changes shown in table 1. All equations are estimated separately by sex.

A difference between this study and much of the recent work on female labor supply referenced in the introduction is that the coefficients in the employment status regression are held fixed for all three years rather than allowed to change from year to year. In the literature, separate equations are often estimated by year, and then the change in labor supply (more often hours of work than employment status, however) from one year to the next is decomposed into the portion that can be explained by changes in the variables in the regression and the portion explained by the rest-changes in the coefficients on the variables and in the intercept. Here, because the focus is only on the former portion, constant coefficients are imposed.

The equation estimated on the pooled data for each sex can be written as follows:

(1) [] = [] [gamma] + [X.sub.i] [beta] + [[epsilon]],

where [E.sub.i,] is a dummy variable equal to 1 if individual i in year t (t = 1989, 1999, or 2007) was employed and zero if not, [] is a vector of variables (wages, nonlabor income, family structure) that change over time and whose explanatory power is being assessed, [X.sub.i] is a vector of age- education-race dummy variables treated as fixed effects, and [epsilon]it is an error term. The predicted change in the employment-population ratio between year t and year t + 1 is therefore [[V.sub.t-1] ([X.sub.i] = x) - [V.sub.t] ([X.sub.i] = x)][gamma] for age-education-race group x, and the predicted change for the population as a whole is the weighted sum of these changes over all age-education-race groups. This fixed-effects model is equivalent to a first-differenced model, although estimated on individual rather than grouped data. The predictions can be compared with actual changes in the employment-population ratio by group and overall.

III.A. Wages

The CPS interview asks respondents to report earnings, weeks worked, and average hours of work per week in the preceding year. The last of these variables is particularly prone to measurement error and leads to the well-known problem of "division bias," so I instead compute weekly wages by dividing earnings by weeks worked. (14) The main results use weekly wages of all workers, but analyses reported in the appendix use the wages of fulltime, year-round (40 or more weeks per year, 35 or more hours per week) workers only, as a further test of whether variation in hours worked or weeks worked affects the weekly wage estimates (many other studies, such as Acemoglu and Autor 2011, also use this measure). Persons in group quarters, the military, the self-employed, and those with allocated earnings are excluded from the wage sample, again as in the studies just referenced. (15) Weekly wages are expressed in 2007 dollars using the personal consumption expenditures (PCE) deflator.

Table 4 shows changes in the logarithm of the real weekly wage by age and education for men and women, for comparison with the employment-population changes shown in table 1. For men, these changes are roughly positively correlated with employment changes from 1999 to 2007, but considerably less of a relationship is observed from 1989 to 1999. However, there is also a positive relationship between the difference in wage changes across the two periods and the difference in employment changes, with some of the largest reductions in wage changes from the earlier to the later period occurring among younger and less educated individuals, which is where the employment changes were also the largest. For women, the relationship is much weaker: most age-education groups experienced wage increases, not decreases, from 1999 to 2007, although it is also the case that the wage increases were typically even larger from 1989 to 1999.

In estimating the model with wages, a well-known problem, extensively addressed in the labor supply literature, is that wage rates are not observed for nonworkers and must be imputed. I follow the fixed-effects approach described in equation 1 by first regressing the log of real weekly wages on the [X.sub.i] vector (age-education-race dummy variables, separately by sex) separately for each of the three years in question: 1989, 1999, and 2007. Because the March CPS in those years reports earnings and weeks worked in the preceding calendar year, I select the sample and estimate these regressions using the 1990, 2000, and 2008 CPS, respectively. I then impute log weekly wages to all individuals in the March 1989, 1999, and 2007 CPS using the estimated equation for the respective year and enter this variable into the [] vector. The coefficient on predicted log weekly wages is thus identified by the covariance between the change in employment probabilities and the change in predicted wages conditional on the age-education-race group, averaged over the groups. Put differently, this is the individual-data equivalent of a first-differenced grouped-data regression in which the change in the mean employment-population ratio in each group is regressed on the change in the log real weekly wage for that group, conditional on the other variables in the [] vector (nonlabor income and demographic characteristics). (16)

For purposes of the analysis here, I do not investigate the source of the change in wages; the literature on changes in the wage structure over the last several decades is replete with alternative explanations for differential wage movements by education, experience, and sex. In addition, I implicitly assume that wage changes are the result of shifts in labor demand for different groups, rather than shifts in the labor supply curve. If the latter occur, some of the wage coefficients could be negative, and the results will show this. The object of this exercise is to determine how far one can go with a traditional labor supply model in explaining changes in the employment-population ratio, not to estimate a general equilibrium model of the labor market.

Another well-known problem since the work of James Heckman (1974) is that the wages of workers alone may be a biased measure of what non-workers would earn, and for the issue studied here, changes in employment over time may result in biased estimates of the effects of wage changes if only workers' wages are used, because those who enter or exit employment may have systematically different wages than those who do not. For the main results reported, I employ a semiparametric version of the traditional Heckman (1979) approach, one not requiring the normality assumption. Reduced-form, first-stage OLS estimates of the employment equation in each year (leaving out the wage) are used to predict probabilities of employment, and a polynomial in those predicted probabilities is then entered into the wage equation estimated on workers only. The selection bias effect is identified because the employment equation contains variables--nonlabor income and some demographic variables--that are excluded from the wage equation. The predicted wage from this equation, obtained by setting the predicted probability equal to 1 (which is equivalent to setting the normal-distribution-based [lambda] to zero), is then used in the employment equation.

As a sensitivity test, I also use the method of imputing wages to nonworkers employed by Juhn and others (1991) and by Juhn (1992), modified slightly as suggested by Blau and Kahn (2007). I also estimate the model with no adjustment for selection bias at all.

III.B. Nonlabor Income

The typical difficulty in constructing a variable for nonlabor income is that few types of such income are exogenous. Means-tested transfer income is inversely related to labor income and therefore to employment, and hence is endogenous, and most social insurance program benefits, such as unemployment insurance and Social Security, are likewise negatively related to employment (Social Security at certain ages is an exception). For this reason the typical labor supply study restricts the nonlabor income variable to include interest, dividends, and rent, which are contemporaneously independent of labor market activity. However, these types of capital income are the result of past accumulation of capital, which is no doubt related to earnings as well. Moreover, large fractions of the population receive no capital income at all. A third type of income sometimes included is earnings by other family members. The leading example is spousal earnings. However, this variable is also likely endogenous if the spouses coordinate their labor supply decisions.

Solving this old and difficult problem is beyond the scope of this study, so here I simply include interest and dividends in the measure of nonlabor income, excluding rent received for data availability reasons. (17) I also conduct sensitivity tests including earnings received by other family members. The nonlabor income variable is converted to a weekly amount and expressed in 2007 PCE dollars.

III.C. Demographic Variables

As noted in the review of labor supply models above, the presence of children, marital status, and other family structure variables have been shown in the literature to have strong effects on labor supply, albeit quite different ones for men and women. Here I construct a three-category marital status variable--married, single, or divorced-widowed-separated--and include variables for the number of young children (those aged 0 to 5) and older children (6 to 18). Also included are variables indicating whether the individual is the head of the household or an unmarried parent (essentially an interaction between marital status and children). These variables are potentially endogenous, but I do not address this issue.

III.D. Results

Table 5 shows the results of the main model for men and women. (18) The wage coefficient for men is 0.06 and is statistically significant at conventional levels, implying that a 10 percent increase in the log weekly wage would raise the employment-population ratio by 0.6 percentage point. This corresponds to an elasticity of approximately 0.08, not large but consistent with the labor supply literature showing fairly inelastic labor supply curves for men. The wage elasticity for women is also positive but insignificant. This result simply reflects the lack of correspondence between the wage and employment changes from 1989 to 2007 shown in tables 1 and 4. Further results for women that separate the estimates by marital status, and yield different estimates, are discussed below.

The other variables have the coefficient signs and significance levels expected from the literature. Nonlabor income has a negative effect on labor supply, the presence of young children reduces the employment probabilities of women, that of older children also reduces women's employment but increases it for men, and married men are more likely to work than unmarried men, whereas women exhibit the opposite relationship. For both sexes, household heads are more likely to work, as are unmarried parents, another common finding in the literature.

Table 6 compares the actual mean changes in male and female employment-population ratios in each of the two sample periods with those predicted by the estimated models. (19) For men, the model explains all of--in fact, more than--the small decline in the 1989-99 period, but only about half of the decline in the 1999-2007 period. For women, the model explains a little over half the rise in the ratio in the first period but virtually none of the decline in the second. (20)

Table 7 shows how the explanatory variables in the model changed in each period, providing some insight into the sources of the model predictions. In the 1999-2007 period, the predicted decline in the male employment-population ratio is accounted for by the decline in wages, the number of older children, the fraction married, the fraction divorced or widowed or separated, and the fraction that are heads of household. Multiplying each of these variables by its regression coefficient shows that the wage decline dominates the other influences in importance, followed by the decline in the fraction married. For women, virtually every variable changed in a direction that would increase rather than decrease employment: wages increased whereas nonlabor income, the number of younger and of older children, and the fraction married declined. This explains why no decline in employment was predicted for women in table 6.

Table 8 shows how well the model captures the age-education patterns of employment decline from 1999 to 2007 reported in table 1. The model captures very little of the pattern of greater declines for younger and less educated women, but this is not surprising given its lack of overall explanatory power. The model captures some of the relatively greater decline for younger men (except for those with less than a high school education) but captures the greater decline among the less educated only for older men. The model is therefore only partly successful, at best, at capturing these patterns.

III.E. Further Exploration of Patterns by Marital Status and Presence of Children

The lack of explanatory power of the model for women, together with the descriptive evidence, noted previously, that the decline in the employment- population ratio for women was concentrated among the unmarried and, within that group, among those without children, suggests that disaggregation of the sample by marital status and presence of children may be warranted. In fact, an inspection of the wage data for women reveals that the log weekly wage fell for married women over 1999-2007 but rose for unmarried women. Among the latter, wages rose for those with children and fell for those without children. Although this does not necessarily imply that the models estimated above are misspecified, it is worth investigating whether the coefficients on wages and other variables are different for the different groups.

To this end, table 9 reports estimations of the model for married and unmarried women separately, and for unmarried women with and without children separately. (21) For married women the wage coefficient is 0.076, a statistically significant result and quite different from that estimated for all women combined (table 5). Married women's wages rose strongly in the 1990s and, as just noted, fell from 1999 to 2007, so the model is much more successful in explaining both the growth of employment in the first period and the decline in the second (in fact, the decline is overpredicted in the second). (22) But the lion's share of the female employment decline occurred, in any case, among the unmarried, and here the estimated model yields an implausible negative wage elasticity when estimated over that subsample. (23) This estimate is a simple result of the fact that wages for all unmarried women rose over the period, while their employment fell. How ever, a further disaggregation of unmarried women into those with and those without children yields quite different results. Both wage elasticities are now positive, and for unmarried women without children, where the majority of the employment decline occurred, the model predicts an employment decline not far from the actual decline. This prediction arises because wages fell for this group, as noted above. Indeed, the wage decline dominates the influence of all the other variables in the model in magnitude. (24) The model does a poor job of explaining the small decline in employment for unmarried women with children, however, predicting instead an increase of some magnitude.

These results suggest that further investigation is warranted into the reasons for the differences in wage elasticities and in wage changes for women of different marital and parental status. The fraction of women who were married and had children was declining over the period, and this could be related to the employment changes, for example. It is also something of a puzzle why wage rates moved in such different directions for some of the demographic subgroups, who presumably operate in roughly the same labor market. This and other issues need to be explored.

IV. Influences on Labor Supply: Taxes and Transfers

As noted in the literature review above, increases in taxes and transfers are often hypothesized to reduce labor supply and employment. The question addressed in this section is whether prima facie evidence exists for such effects specifically between 2000 and 2007.

IV.A. Taxes

There were no changes in federal income taxes during 2000-07 that would have induced a decline in labor supply over the period, and as this section will show, many of the changes that did occur would suggest the opposite. The Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001 provided for lower marginal tax rates at all income levels to be phased in gradually over 2001-06, repealed the phase-out of itemized deductions and the personal exemption by 2008, and made some tax rate reductions retroactive. The Jobs and Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2003 accelerated some of those reductions and reduced capital gains tax rates, and the Working Families Tax Relief Act of 2004 accelerated the provisions of both prior acts.

The relevant tax rate for the employment decision, as opposed to the marginal-hours-worked decision, is the average tax rate (ATR), which the Internal Revenue Service defines as total federal income tax due (after credits) as a share of adjusted gross income. Table 10 shows ATRs for all returns and for selected nominal income ranges in each of the years 2000 to 2007. The ATR fell overall and for most income ranges over this period, which should have led to an increase in the employment-population ratio rather than its opposite.

Other taxes during this period either did not change, increased only slightly, or fell. The federal payroll tax rate below the maximum taxable earnings amount remained at 7.65 percent over the period, unchanged from its value in 1990. The taxable maximum itself (which is indexed to inflation) did rise, however, leading to a slight increase in the payroll ATR for those with higher nominal incomes. The phase-in and phase-out tax rates for the earned income tax credit were unchanged from 1996 to 2008, although the income level for the maximum credit and for the complete phase-out moved up, increasing work incentives for lower earners and decreasing them for higher earners. Capital gains and dividend tax rates generally fell, and estate and gift tax rates were reduced and exemption levels raised.

IV.B. Transfers

The federal system of transfers includes both programs that provide means-tested transfers and social insurance programs, where eligibility and benefits are based on past earnings contributions. The leading means-tested programs in terms of expenditure and caseloads are Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF, formerly AFDC), the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, since 2008 the official name of the food stamp program), and the federal housing aid programs. The leading social insurance programs are the Social Security retirement (Old Age and Survivors Insurance) program, Medicare, UI, and the Social Security disability insurance (DI) program.

Theoretically, most of these programs might be expected to reduce work incentives among their beneficiaries and hence to reduce work effort, although their governing laws and regulations include many specific provisions that could go either way and will not be discussed here. More important is the empirical literature on the existence and size of those disincentives; that literature is quite large for some programs and quite small for many others. The literature was recently reviewed by Yonatan Ben-Shalom, Moffitt, and John Scholz (forthcoming), who find the evidence on work disincentives to be modest for most programs and very sparse for some. There is virtually no research evidence on the work disincentives of the current TANF program, for example, and very little for SSI. However, the TANF caseload is extremely small and very unlikely to contribute to the widespread employment-population declines seen in the data, and SSI affects only the aged and the disabled. A few studies have examined the work disincentives of expansions of the Medicaid program and have shown zero or negligible effects (Gruber 2003, Ham and Shore-Sheppard 2005). SNAP appears to create work disincentives that are quite small, primarily because the benefit in question (food coupons) is not sufficiently large to provide much additional income as a result of reduced work effort (Currie 2003). A recent study of the federal housing aid programs shows them to create significant work disincentives, lowering employment by about 4 percentage points (Jacob and Ludwig 2012). However, once again, housing subsidy recipients are a restricted set of the population.

As for the social insurance programs, a vast literature analyzes the effects of the Social Security retirement program on retirement ages and the labor supply of the elderly, but they are outside the scope of this study. Evidence on the program's indirect impact on labor supply by the nonelderly is too sparse to allow any reliable conclusions. The few recent studies of the effect of Medicare on labor supply (such as French and Jones 2011) suggest the possibility of nontrivial work disincentives but, once again, only for those 65 or older. Research on the disincentive effects of Social Security's DI program has been increasing because of the recent growth in its caseload and expenditure. No consensus on its work disincentive effects has yet emerged, however: studies using traditional benefit-employment correlations (such as Autor and Duggan 2003) show larger disincentives than studies using rejected applicants as a control group (Bound, Lindner, and Waidmann 2010). (25) A very large literature examines the work disincentives of the UI program but reaches very little consensus on the magnitude of the effects. If one considers only the effects of the basic UI program and not of its extensions during economic downturns--there was no difference in UI extended benefits in 2000 and 2007--the most cited study is the recent work of Raj Chetty (2008), which implies nontrivial work disincentives of the program on lengths of unemployment spells.

More important for present purposes is whether any of these programs grew in size over 1999-2007 and, if so, whether there was any significant change in their structure, eligibility, or benefits over that period. Figure 4 shows that among the major means-tested transfer programs, only Medicaid and SNAP saw substantial growth in caseloads during this period; the SSI caseload also grew, and the housing caseload declined, but both only slightly; the TANF caseload also declined. The growth of Medicaid during this period was a result of legislation in 1999 creating the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIE later renamed CHIP), which expanded coverage to children. This expansion should have had only an indirect impact on adult work effort. In addition, the growth of the Medicaid program began much earlier, in the late 1980s, as a result of expansionary reforms for coverage of children and pregnant women, which continued to have an impact over succeeding years.

More relevant to adult work effort is the rise in the SNAP caseload per capita, which began around 2000 and continued to grow thereafter (and accelerated after the onset of the Great Recession). The reasons for this growth relate to administrative reforms intended to increase the participation rate of eligible families, which historically had been only around 60 percent. Beginning in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture began strongly encouraging states to make it easier to participate in the program. These activities included extensive outreach programs to inform low-income communities about the program; simplified eligibility criteria that reduced the paperwork requirements for application; reduced recertification requirements requiring less reporting and less frequent reestablishment of eligibility; and relaxed asset test requirements (Leftin and Wolkwitz 2009). These reforms have been found to be a major cause of the increase in the caseload (Klerman and Danielson 2009).


Earlier research (for example, Currie 2003) has found SNAP to create very small work disincentives, if any. However, it is possible that the marginal individuals brought into the program by these administrative reforms had higher levels of initial employment and perhaps stronger employment reductions from receiving program benefits. Although no direct evidence on this question is available, one can identify where in the income distribution the increases in participation from 2000 to 2007 occurred. As table 11 indicates, these increases were concentrated among the very poorest families, those with incomes less than 25 percent of the poverty line. (26) Although in principle the low incomes of these families may be partly the result of program participation, it seems unlikely that their employment would be very high in the absence of participation, as might have seemed more possible if the participation increases had occurred somewhat higher in the distribution. In any case, more research on this question is needed.


Figure 5 shows the growth in caseloads per capita of the two social insurance programs for the nonelderly, UI and DI. The UI caseload was approximately the same in 2000 and 2007, not surprisingly since the unemployment rate was the same in those years as well, and no structural reforms of the program took place between those years. The DI program, on the other hand, continued a pattern of growth that had begun in 1990 (and which continued into the Great Recession and its aftermath). (27) Much research has been conducted on the causes of this growth. Declining wages for the low-skilled population may be one factor responsible, but changes in administrative procedures that effectively allow more eligible individuals into the program are thought to be another (Bound and others 2010).

A reexamination of the disincentive effects of the DI program is beyond the scope of this paper, but a relevant piece of evidence that can be gleaned from the CPS is whether the magnitudes and pattern of increases in DI receipt across age-education groups (receipt of DI benefits is reported in the survey) match up with the patterns of employment decline. Table 12 shows how DI receipt reported in the CPS changed between 1999 and 2007 for the different groups of men and women; these data provide little basis for concluding that DI has played much of a role in the employment decline. Some of the youngest and least skilled groups have seen increases in receipt, but the magnitudes are tiny compared with the declines in the employment-population ratio shown in table 1. Many older groups have actually seen declines in receipt. Although the fraction of the caseload composed of somewhat younger men has increased in recent decades (von Wachter and others 2011), the caseload is still dominated by older men: in the CPS data set used here, the share receiving DI exceeds 3 percent in some of the subgroups within the 55-64 age group, but never more than half a percent among those under 40. Thus, the patterns of receipt of this type of transfer do not match up well with the age patterns of the employment population ratio decline. (28)

In summary, few changes in the tax and transfer system during 1999-2007 are likely to have contributed to the decline in employment-population ratios. Income tax rates fell rather than increased, and no other significant changes in the tax system occurred. Most transfer programs did not experience programmatic reform, and those that experienced significant caseload growth over the period are unlikely to have played a major role in the employment declines, although more study of SNAP in this regard is warranted.

V. Other Possible Influences on Labor Supply

Several other factors that may have influenced the decline in employment- population ratios are worthy of consideration. These include changes in time use, health status, incarceration, and the minimum wage.

V.A. Time Use

Time use could be a contributing explanation if the decline in employment- population ratios was accompanied by an increase in nonmarket work, household production, or time devoted to childcare. Although such a shift would itself require an explanation, it would obviously suggest a concrete direction for exploration. Unfortunately, examining this hypothesis specifically for the 1999-2007 period is severely limited by lack of data. Modern analyses of time use begin with the American Time Use Survey (ATUS), whose first year was 2003. As I have emphasized, 2003 witnessed the trough of a business cycle and a peak of unemployment (see figure 2), and consequently one should expect to see a decline in employment-population ratios and probably an increase in nonmarket work between 1999 or 2000 and that year. However, no time use survey is available for 1999 or 2000 in any case. Before the 2003 ATUS, the most reliable recent survey was conducted in 1985, far too early to draw conclusions for the time period under consideration here. Further, Mark Aguiar and Erik Hurst (2007) have shown that nonmarket work time actually declined over 1985-2003--the wrong direction for explaining a downward trend in employment. A 1994 survey exists but is widely regarded as fairly unreliable, often providing counterfactual results, and its time use categories are not completely comparable to those used in the ATUS. Aguiar and Hurst also analyze that survey, however, and again find that nonmarket work declined from 1994 to 2003, albeit by a smaller amount than from 1985 to 2003.

Aguiar, Hurst, and Loukas Karabarbounis (2011) use the ATUS to chart nonmarket work time from 2003 to 2007 and beyond (their paper is more focused on trends in the Great Recession). Their data show strong increases in market work and declines in nonmarket time from 2003 to 2007. Again, however, this was unquestionably a cyclical recovery period, and this direction of effect is exactly what one would expect for that phase of a cycle.

Somewhat better recent data are available on time spent in childcare. Garey Ramey and Valerie Ramey (2010) analyze data for 1975-2008 and find an upward trend in childcare time. Although this is evidence in support of the hypothesis that changes in time use contributed to the decline in employment, the pattern by level of parental education in the childcare trend was exactly the opposite of that in the employment-population ratio demonstrated previously. Whereas the declines in employment were disproportionately concentrated among the less educated--and, as the previous section showed, among the unmarried--the increases in childcare time were concentrated among higher educated, married individuals.

V.B. Health

A decline in the overall health of a population is another factor that could contribute to a decline in employment. Although one would naturally expect health to improve over time for a population with growing income per capita, it need not necessarily improve over shorter periods, particularly for the most disadvantaged subgroups. Measurement is a difficult issue here as well: the use of medical records to determine trends in specific morbidity rates is subject to bias, because improved medical procedures generally result in greater detection of disease. The most commonly used measure of health status is a self-rated measure from survey questions asking whether an individual's health is excellent, good, fair, or poor. This question is used in the CPS as well as in the National Health Interview Survey and others. Unfortunately, time trends in the fractions of the population reporting these different health status categories differ dramatically across surveys--rising in some, falling in others, and stationary in others, including over 2000-07 (Salomon and others 2009). In any case, the CPS, in particular, shows improvements in health in almost all age, education, and race categories, so it is unlikely that this factor is a significant one in the employment-population trends under study here.
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Title Annotation:p.201-234
Author:Moffitt, Robert A.
Publication:Brookings Papers on Economic Activity
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2012
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