Clearing the Way for Working Women

Abby M. McCloskey

Winter 2015

The labor-force participation rate of women in the United States has been falling since the turn of the 21st century and is lower now than at any time since fall 1988. This is despite the fact that women are going to college, finishing their degrees, and going on to get advanced degrees at significantly higher rates than men. At this point, roughly 60% more women than men are sitting on the sidelines, out of the labor force. As of October 2014, nearly 50 million American women were staying at home.

Of course, many Americans believe that children are better off when a parent stays at home, and this preference surely accounts for many women's departure from the work force. But substantial evidence suggests that not all women are choosing to stay at home because they think it's better for their children. Many are instead responding to economic incentives. Higher effective tax rates, lower wages, rising child-care costs, and a poor economy have significantly reduced the rewards for women's work. As a result, many have reduced their hours or quit the labor force entirely when it otherwise may not have been their preference or what was best for their family. What's more, the choice to go part-time or to stop working even temporarily often has lasting consequences for future pay and promotion potential if a woman returns to the full-time work force later. For women who want to be engaged in the economy and work outside the home, this is a steep personal cost.

The consequences for the economy are also significant. With many women driven out of the work force against their own preference, the economy loses capable laborers and their productivity, curtailing future economic growth. The federal budget, bowing under the historic weight of unfunded liabilities, is further strained by the reduction in the number of workers relative to those claiming benefits. And the country loses out on the innovation and creativity that might have been achieved should these women have stayed in the labor force and reached their full professional potential.

The improvement of women's economic opportunities should be an obvious cause for Republicans to champion. At issue is freedom of choice, the promotion of work, and the cultivation of upward mobility — values that conservatives have long held dear. Unfortunately, women's issues have been a touchy subject for conservatives in recent years. Republican candidates have made some painful public gaffes, which have led some women voters to think that the party is out of touch, and the GOP generally shies away from issues that smack of identity politics — traditionally the domain of progressives. There are also comparatively few women in national Republican leadership, meaning that questions touching on motherhood and child care must be addressed by conservative men, an uncomfortable task that is rarely handled with the grace it requires.

As a result Republicans have been relatively silent (compared to Democrats) on women's economic issues, and many have interpreted that silence as apathy (or worse), which has hurt the party's relationship with women voters. The last presidential election revealed the largest gender gap in Gallup's history: Women favored President Obama by a 12-point margin. But women have not won much for their loyalty. Though Democrats have dedicated a disproportionate share of rhetoric to women's issues, they have done little to improve the economic incentives facing many women. If anything, recent policies put into place under the left's leadership, like higher marginal tax rates and Obamacare, have further limited women's economic choices.

Republican politicians and working women both have much to gain from conservative engagement with women's economic issues. To be sure, men and women alike benefit from conservatives' traditional agenda of promoting economic growth, reducing regulation, incentivizing innovation, and lowering taxes. Republicans should continue to vigorously pursue these pro-growth policies.

In a country dealing with stalled economic growth, rising government debt, and low work-force participation, increasing rewards for work and reducing the barriers that make work difficult for mothers will encourage more women to participate in and contribute to the economy. The conservative principles of promoting work, reducing the tax burden, protecting freedom of choice, and investing in human capital can and should be applied to these challenges to help women succeed in today's economy and contribute to greater national prosperity.


Economists have long found that women tend to have higher labor-supply elasticities than men, meaning that they are more likely to scale back their hours or stop working in the face of higher taxes or lower wages. These gender differences are attributed to women having competing demands on their time, since they often serve as the primary caretakers of children and are usually responsible for a greater share of household duties. As a result, nearly any program that increases actual or effective tax rates will result in a disproportionate decline in women's labor-force participation.

This is especially true for married women. Working wives arguably face the highest marginal tax rates of any demographic under the current family-based tax system. Benefits and deductions aside, a single woman entering the work force would pay a 10% tax rate on her first dollar earned. A married woman whose husband earned $60,000 would enter the work force as a secondary earner and face a 25% tax rate on her first dollar. Reducing the rewards for work discourages married women's employment, regardless of total family income. In 2013, payroll taxes and income taxes increased for top-earning families, and taxes may well continue to increase in the coming decades as the federal budget situation further deteriorates with ever-growing deficits and debt.

For low-income women, the effects of marginal tax rates are also dramatic because they lose means-tested benefits as their incomes rise. According to a recent study by Melissa Kearney and Lesley Turner, a family with a primary earner who made $25,000 a year would take home less than 30% of a secondary earner's wages because of taxes and the phase-out of benefits, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit. The EITC, a refundable tax credit that provides substantial cash payments to low-income workers, is based on family income, not individual income. Thus, a married woman in a dual-earner household receives a significantly smaller EITC benefit than a single woman earning the same paycheck, which discourages the married woman from working.

High effective marginal tax rates are a particularly concerning byproduct of some welfare programs. A 2012 Congressional Budget Office report found that some low-income households could face up to a 100% marginal tax rate because of the phase-out of different benefits, such as Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (or food stamps). Indeed, there are numerous tax and child-care scenarios in which a woman could actually lose money by working after accounting for higher taxes and work-related expenses like child care and transportation.

Social Security also imposes a high effective tax on working wives. The Social Security system was introduced when family structure was very different than it is today and when women's work-force participation was much lower, and the basic benefit system has not changed. For individuals, Social Security benefits are based on earnings and funded by a payroll tax; for married couples, Social Security benefits are largely based on whichever spouse earned more — usually the husband. A 2010 study led by AEI economist Andrew Biggs found that most married women pay the full 12.4% of their earnings into the system but usually don't get back any more benefits than if they'd stayed at home.

The Affordable Care Act has also complicated matters, further discouraging women from working. Starting in 2014, the law provides generous health-care subsidies for individuals and families below 400% of the poverty line who do not have access to employer-provided health insurance. The subsidies phase out as people earn more money, in effect functioning as a marginal income tax. The Congressional Budget Office reports that, on average, the marginal tax rate imposed by the ACA is roughly 15%. Combined with other benefit programs and the tax system, marginal tax rates could reach 50% for some earners, according to University of Chicago economist Casey Mulligan. And because women have higher labor-supply elasticities, they will be most likely to leave the labor force in response to the new health-care law. Moreover, the CBO finds that the largest declines in labor supply from the ACA will occur among lower-wage workers, who disproportionately tend to be women.

There are a number of policy ideas conservatives should consider that could minimize women's work disincentives in current federal tax policy. For example, combining related anti-poverty programs could make clearer the real negative consequences of their benefit structures. In a paper earlier this year, American Enterprise Institute economist Aparna Mathur and I advocated for combining some means-tested programs (such as SNAP, TANF, and housing vouchers) into a single program, which would make the marginal tax rates faced by low-income individuals far more transparent.

A more straightforward solution would be to lower marginal income tax rates, which would likely boost women's labor supply in particular. Economist Nada Eissa examined the impact of the 1986 tax reform on the labor supply of married women. She found that the tax decrease, which lowered the top marginal tax rate from 50% to 28%, increased women's labor supply by as much as 18%.

Switching to a more individual-based tax and benefits system would be a more sweeping change (and significantly more difficult to arrange politically) but could produce major benefits for many American families. The model of the traditional family is changing and our tax system has not adjusted to it. As a result, the current tax structure and benefit programs often penalize marriage and work. The system could be made more neutral through an expansion of the secondary-earners deduction or through earnings-sharing arrangements. For example, economists Melissa Favreault and Eugene Steuerle have found that an earnings-sharing approach — in which, when computing Social Security benefits, spouses' earnings records are combined and averaged over the duration of their marriage — may help offset the work disincentives for married women.

Conservatives have long advocated tax and entitlement reform, which would have demonstrable benefits for economic vitality, innovation, and job creation. Such a reform should also include a careful re-examination and retooling of effective marginal tax rates on secondary earners. Doing so would improve women's economic outcomes and restore the decision regarding whether to work to the woman and her family, rather than the federal government.


Stubbornly low wages have compounded the incentives for low-income women not to work. Wages for low-skilled workers have stalled in recent years as a result of globalization and technological change. This trend has disproportionately affected women, who comprise more than 62% of workers paid at or below the minimum wage. To combat this destructive trend, some have proposed raising the minimum wage. But conservatives have rightly pointed out that raising the minimum wage hurts the very people it's intended to help. The CBO recently found that an increase in the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour could result in approximately 500,000 workers losing their jobs. Most of these people would likely be women, given their disproportionate representation in low-wage jobs.

A more targeted approach to relieving downward wage pressure for women would be an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit. The EITC is a refundable tax credit and the second largest cash payment program for low-income families, after food stamps. The credit is tied to work and, over a significant interval, increases in size the more one works, up to a point. One justification for the EITC is that increasing the rewards of work will lead more people to enter the labor force. And some evidence does suggest that the EITC increases labor-force participation, especially for low-income single mothers. One study finds that 60% of a nine-percentage-point increase in single mothers' employment between 1984 and 1996 was due to expansions of the EITC, along with other changes in the tax code.

The benefits of the EITC for families extend beyond the period of direct receipt. The credit generates a higher earnings-growth potential for women over their lifetimes. The EITC has been found to substantially reduce the number of women on welfare and increase the amount of Social Security retirement benefits that women receive. Studies also show that it improves children's outcomes: An additional $1,000 in EITC income is associated with a 6.7% to 10.8% reduction in the low-birth-weight rate (a proxy for maternal investment), with larger effects for births to African-American mothers. In this way, the EITC serves as an important cultivator of intergenerational upward mobility for low-income families.

Given its demonstrated labor-supply effects, plans to expand the EITC hold a great deal of promise. Before such an expansion takes place, however, the EITC has several shortcomings that need to be addressed. As with many government-run benefit programs, there is a significant amount of error and fraud. The IRS reports that up to a quarter of EITC payments are made in error. So as a first step, Congress should commission a study into more effective ways to distribute EITC payments or simplify the payment scale to reduce room for error.

The structure of EITC payments should also be improved. Currently, beneficiaries receive the credit payment as a once-a-year lump sum after they have done the work, when they file their income-tax return the following spring. This is not very helpful to recipients of the EITC, many of whom live paycheck to paycheck. Senator Rubio has recognized this downside, and has proposed altering the structure to allow for more frequent payments.

In addition, there are huge differences in the size of the benefit, depending on whether a particular beneficiary is married or has children; childless workers and married women receive substantially smaller payments than single women with children. The EITC should be made more neutral with respect to family structure.

Once these improvements are made, the size of the EITC payments should be increased to encourage more low-income women to enter the labor force. The funds for this expansion could come from scaling down other benefit programs or from increasing tax revenues. Payments could also be redistributed among recipients by implementing a steeper phase-out as beneficiaries earn more. These changes would need to be handled carefully, because such a phasing-out of benefits imposes an implicit marginal tax, which, as discussed above, can discourage work. Thus far, studies of the EITC do not show evidence that phasing out the benefit discourages women's employment or reduces the number of hours they work, but implementing such a change in benefit structure would require careful observation and further study.

Whatever shape reforms take, conservatives should continue to support and even double down on the EITC, as it has proven to be effective in promoting work for low-income women.


One of the greatest challenges facing low-income women is the high cost of child care. According to the Census Bureau, families with an employed mother and young children paid $143 per week on average for child care in 2011, up 70% from 1985 (in constant 2011 dollars). It is important to note, however, that child-care costs vary greatly with household income. According to the Census Bureau, families with employed mothers and a monthly income of $4,500 or more paid an average of $163 a week, or 6.7% of their family income on average. At the other end of the spectrum, families with monthly incomes less than $1,500 paid an average of $97 a week — 39.6% of their income. The cost of child care can vary greatly from region to region as well, but it consistently ranks as a major household expense: In 2013, the cost of child care was the greatest single household expense for the average family in the Northeast, Midwest, and South; in the West, the only greater expense was housing.

As the cost of formal child care increases, more mothers decide to care for children themselves, leaving the labor force completely or scaling back the hours they work. The resulting labor-supply effect is quite substantial and confirmed across numerous studies. In a review of the literature, economist Jean Kimmel found that a 10% increase in child-care cost is associated with a 2.0% to 7.4% decrease in women's employment. In another study, Kimmel found that rising child-care costs similarly affect the labor supply of low-income, single mothers. Given the 70% increase in child-care costs over the past three decades, it is likely that the women's labor supply has been significantly limited.

Having fewer women in the work force is harmful for the economy as a whole, but it also harms the future job prospects of the particular women involved. When women leave the work force or shift into part-time work, their professional trajectories are often negatively affected for years to come. Using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, economist June O'Neill has found that approximately 84% of the gender wage gap can be explained by women having spent more time out of the labor force and acquiring less on-the-job training and experience than their male peers.

Indeed, the impact of women's time out of the labor force is akin to what happens to workers during a spell of unemployment. Among workers who lost a full-time job between 2007 and 2009 and came back to work in January 2010, 55% earned less per week than they had at their previous jobs. This loss of earnings is largely explained by their reduced accumulation of experience and on-the-job training during the months or years they were out of a job.

To mitigate these unemployment effects, conservatives to their credit have recently championed innovative proposals to get Americans back to work as soon as possible. They have gone far beyond the traditional Republican planks of job creation (such as tax reform and energy reform) to propose targeted reforms like relocation vouchers, enterprise or tax-free zones, job training, and work share to increase employment. But conservatives have shied away from child-care subsidies.

This is a break with past Republican policies: President Gerald Ford signed the Child and Dependent Care Credit into law in 1976, providing families a nonrefundable tax credit for child-care expenses to qualified caregivers, and President George W. Bush expanded the credit in 2001, when Republicans controlled both the House and the Senate. Economist David Henderson of the Hoover Institution says that the credit was "one of the most successful supply-side provisions of the tax code" and helped fulfill "an implicit goal of the Reagan Administration to encourage wives and mothers to participate in the labor market."

So why aren't conservatives who are interested in increasing employment taking up the cause of child-care subsidies? Some argue that women don't actually want them. The conservative manifesto Room to Grow, published in 2014 by the Young Guns Network, cites a Pew Research study that found most parents prefer for one parent to provide childcare, and just 16% thought that a mother working full-time was best. The article concludes that policies favoring formal child-care arrangements are thus contrary to many parents' desires.

While the survey is no doubt reliable, some women need to work outside the home to provide for their families. Approximately one-third of stay-at-home mothers live in poverty, compared with 12% of working mothers. Work is a central component of upward economic mobility, and we should make it as easy as possible for women to re-enter the work force by reducing barriers to employment.

Republicans would do well to propose an expansion of child-care subsidies, as such programs consistently demonstrate positive labor-market effects. A robust academic literature suggests that offsetting child-care costs increases employment and decreases government dependency — two primary conservative objectives. Using data from the 1999 National Survey of America's Families, David Blau and Erdal Tekin found that the child-care subsidies for welfare recipients resulted in a 13-percentage-point increase in the likelihood of employment for single mothers. Another study found that the introduction of subsidized child care in Quebec in the late 1990s resulted in a significant employment boost for married women.

Furthermore, child care is a necessary work expense for parents and as such should be tax deductible. As AEI economist Alan Viard recently explained, "Under basic tax policy principles, workers should be allowed to deduct the expenses of earning the income on which they are taxed. Child care meets the economic definition of a work-related expense — parents are less likely to work when child care becomes more expensive....Families should be free to make their own child care choices, based on the options available to them, their understanding of their children's needs, and their moral values, without interference from the tax system."

Unfortunately, today's maze of government programs simply does not give most women the child-care support that they qualify for or need. The Child Care and Development Fund provides block grants to states for child care, with priority given to mothers on welfare. However, only 18% of eligible children receive such child-care subsidies, according to a 2012 study from the Department of Health and Human Services.

The Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit provides a tax credit ranging from 20% to 35% of eligible child-care costs up to $3,000 for one child and $6,000 for two or more children. But this is below the average cost of child care and is not indexed to inflation. Additionally, because the credit is nonrefundable, many low-income families do not meet the eligibility requirements. Only 8% of CDCTC benefits went to households with incomes less than $30,000 in 2006, according to an analysis by the Tax Policy Center.

These programs can be streamlined and made more available to women by increasing the amount of the CDCTC to reflect current child-care costs and making it partially refundable, which would improve work incentives for working- and middle-class women. Some of the additional costs could be offset by a reduction of the Child Care and Development Fund, increased payroll- and income-tax collection from the increasing number of working mothers, and the savings from reduced welfare enrollment.

Additionally, child-care costs could be indirectly subsidized through the EITC or child tax credit, the latter of which has received considerable attention recently in conservative circles. Expanding the child tax credit would certainly move money back into the pockets of families, which is a good thing. But there is little evidence that the child tax credit increases work — a primary aim of many conservative policies — at least to the same extent as a direct child-care subsidy that is work-dependent.

Lastly, regulatory relief is sorely needed around the supply of child care. Economist Diana Thomas finds that group-size limits, licensing rules requiring staff at child-care centers to have teacher-like credentials, and zoning laws that keep child-care facilities out of residential neighborhoods all limit access to child care with little to no impact on quality of care. Carefully adjusting these requirements could improve access and reduce costs of care.

Conservatives should return to their roots on child care. While many women would love to be home with their children full time, others want to work or need to work to provide for their families. A child-care subsidy would help make their work possible and more profitable.


Though the United States has benefit systems to provide income for workers who are out of work because of a disability and for workers who are unemployed, it has no such system in place for pregnant workers. The United States is the only country in the developed world that does not have a national, paid maternity-leave program. In fact, the only other countries in the world that don't have such a program are Oman and Papua New Guinea.

The only federal policy that provides leave for new mothers in the United States is the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993, which mandates that employers offer 12 weeks of job-protected, unpaid leave to workers who have a medical issue or need to care for a family member. But while their jobs may be safe, many women cannot afford to take such leave because it is unpaid and they need the income. Moreover, 40% of women are ineligible to take the leave even if they want to, due to FMLA's exemptions for company size and restrictions based on worker tenure and other qualifications.

Conservatives traditionally have opposed passing laws providing or mandating maternity benefits under the belief that, in a free market, the private sector and its employees would work out a mutually beneficial leave arrangement. The 2012 American Community Survey reported that 4.1 million women had given birth in the prior 12 months. Using historical averages from 2005 through 2007, approximately two-thirds of mothers worked during their first pregnancy. Of these working women, about half had paid leave. (It is important to note that this means access to paid leave in any form, be it sick leave, vacation leave, or maternity leave for any duration of time). This means that as many as 1.4 million working women give birth each year without any paid leave from their employer.

Democrats have recently made some efforts toward passing legislation to fix this problem. For example, in 2004, California instituted a new payroll tax to support paid maternity-leave benefits, and Rhode Island and New Jersey have since followed suit. In 2013, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Representative Rosa DeLauro proposed the Family and Medical Insurance Leave Act, which would provide up to 12 weeks of paid leave to new mothers regardless of whether they are employed or unemployed. This, too, would be funded by a payroll tax.

While the impulse behind these efforts is laudable, the means by which Democrats have suggested paying for such benefits are flawed; the higher taxes and employer mandates that would provide these benefits would have real labor market consequences that aren't taken into account. As noted above, higher taxes have an outsized effect on women's labor-force participation in general, so it is not clear whether increasing taxes to pay for maternity leave would help or hurt working mothers. Furthermore, requiring employers to provide expensive special benefits is not likely to incentivize them to hire more women; even when they don't offer paid leave, employers must handle the cost and inconvenience of covering for or temporarily replacing an employee who is out of the office for weeks at a time.

There are better ways to provide paid maternity leave, and conservatives are the best equipped to find a solution that helps families without hurting business and raising taxes. Such a family-friendly policy should be in conservatives' wheelhouse, especially when it is also good for the economy. There is evidence that paid maternity leave could have positive economic benefits by strengthening the connection between a worker and her employer. Economists Christopher Ruhm and Jacqueline Teague found that moderate paid leave periods — 10 to 25 weeks — are associated with higher labor-force participation rates for women than unpaid leave. In another study, economists Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn studied what drove the drop in American women's work-force participation compared to other developed countries. The United States had the sixth highest female work-force participation rate in the OECD in 1990; it dropped to 17th in 2010. Blau and Kahn found that the lack of "family-friendly" policies in the United States relative to other OECD countries, including paid parental leave, accounted for approximately 28% of the relative decline in U.S. women's labor-force participation.

While paid maternity leave offers valuable economic benefits, it is, more importantly, the right thing for conservatives to do. Conservatives generally want to support families having children, and they generally support a basic safety net for those in need, but their current policies regarding maternity leave do not necessarily convey these values. It makes little sense from a conservative perspective that a woman who is laid off from her job could receive unemployment-insurance payments for 26 weeks, but a new mother would receive no such payments during her period of physically enforced unemployment.

Unemployment, of course, is different from paid maternity leave in important ways, and in designing a better maternity benefit, Congress should be careful not to set the mandatory duration of leave so high that employers become hesitant to hire women who might become pregnant. Benefits should be set low enough that they do not provide an incentive for employers to drop benefits for their employees if they already provide them and low enough that employees who have private benefits do not drop them for public ones. In addition, studies find that longer durations of leave — typically a year or more — are associated with lower earnings for women, more part-time work, and less promotion potential. However, these negative effects can be largely avoided as long as the eligible period for paid leave is duly constrained.

A conservative plan need not be enormously expensive. A back-of-the-envelope calculation can give a sense of how much a modest benefit would cost. The average unemployment benefit is about $300 per week. To provide new mothers with a comparable benefit for six weeks (the duration of paid maternity leave that the White House currently provides its staff) would cost $1,800 per person. To provide that benefit for the roughly 1.4 million women currently without paid leave who will give birth this year would cost $2.5 billion. If federally provided paid leave were extended to all working mothers, the benefit would cost $5 billion. Compared to the $93 billion spent on unemployment-benefit payments in 2012 and the $200 billion spent on disability insurance, this is a relatively small price to pay to help working women.

Conservatives can avoid the pitfalls that the Democrats have fallen into by having the government pay for maternity-leave benefits directly, not through tax hikes and employer mandates, but by reducing waste in other programs. By reforming the vastly more expensive unemployment-insurance or disability-insurance programs, both of which are riddled with waste, the federal government could cover the expense. The savings could be used to provide a safety net for women, especially those who are hourly workers and have access to no other form of paid leave.

Another option is for Congress to change the rules for Health Savings Accounts, allowing women to use their health savings to pay for general expenses while they are on maternity leave. An HSA is an account that allows workers to save and pay for qualifying medical expenses, tax free. Significantly broadening qualifying expenses for a limited time period after a woman gives birth would make it easier for her to save for being out of work. There are annual contribution limits to HSAs already in place to protect against families overusing this tax-preference.

A paid maternity leave would provide a relatively inexpensive safety net for working women who otherwise do not have access to current benefit programs.


Stable marriages and families are some of the best predictors of economic success, and conservatives should be applauded for their focus on promoting family stability. Unfortunately, however, intact nuclear families are becoming increasingly rare, and conservatives need to offer solutions for single mothers that recognize the unique economic challenges of working and raising children alone.

Since the 1980s, the number of families headed by single mothers has doubled. A family led by an unmarried mother on average earns approximately $23,000 per year — a quarter of the median family income of married mothers, according to Pew Research. This makes it difficult for mothers to provide for daily needs and child care; investing in human capital for themselves or their children is out of the question. Forty-six percent of children in families led by a single mother live in poverty, compared to 10% of those in two-parent families. In a recent paper, Harvard economist Raj Chetty found that the proportion of single mothers in a community was the greatest correlate to low upward mobility across generations.

While there is considerable evidence that single motherhood often leads to poor economic outcomes, there is also evidence that poor economic outcomes lead to single motherhood. Women from disadvantaged backgrounds — who grew up in single-parent homes and in poverty — are significantly more likely to give birth as teens than girls without these disadvantages. A 2003 study using data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics shows that in a sample of women ages 20 to 35, 24% gave birth before age 20. Among the subsample of women born into poverty, nearly 49% gave birth before the age of 20.

The neighborhood a girl grows up in has a significant impact on her perceived and actual opportunities. The key to overcoming a poor neighborhood and other disadvantages is quality education. It is the most vital component of economic opportunity and the best predictor of an individual's personal and professional trajectory. While there are a lot of conflicting views about school choice, there is promising evidence that school choice can help young people overcome residential and economic segregation. In two recent papers, Aparna Mathur and I review the evidence on school choice for student outcomes. We find that school choice has been shown to have a significant positive impact on girls, with one study finding that girls who attended their first-choice school were 14 percentage points more likely to complete a four-year college degree.

Another way to encourage education and expand the future opportunities of young women, especially those from low-income families, is to make school attendance by dependents an eligibility requirement for welfare programs. For example, one study evaluated the impact of Wisconsin's Learnfare program, a welfare waiver program that reduced the welfare benefits of families whose teenage children did not meet school-attendance requirements. Researchers found that Learnfare was extremely successful at targeting at-risk students and promoting school attendance among this group. Currently, 15 states do not require dependents to be enrolled in school when their families are receiving TANF payments. Nationwide enforcement of policies like Learnfare should be a priority.

Because education is so important to future economic success, conservatives should also consider subsidizing child-care for single mothers who are students themselves, so that having a child doesn't prevent women from attending the school or job-training programs they need to have meaningful careers. Single mothers with less education and no job are significantly more likely to remain in the cycle of poverty. According to economist Hilary Hoynes and colleagues, more than 30% of households headed by someone without a GED are impoverished, compared to less than 10% of households headed by someone with a GED or higher. The structure of these programs would have to be developed carefully so that education does not become a substitute for work.

Lastly, conservatives should consider cash-bonus programs for low-income students' educational achievement. In earlier work, Mathur and I proposed a "milestone credit," which would give low-income teenagers a cash bonus when they receive their high-school diploma to encourage them not to drop out. According to the Department of Education, students from households in the lowest 20% of the income distribution drop out of high school at nearly six times the rate of students from the highest-income families. Indeed, there is a growing body of research on using financial incentives to motivate educational goals. Roland Fryer of Harvard has found that financial incentives can be a "cost-effective strategy to raise achievement among even the poorest minority students in the lowest-performing schools," if the incentive programs are properly structured. The milestone credit should begin as a pilot program to test its efficacy in improving graduation rates, the size of the credit required, and the impact on lifetime earnings.

Of course, government investment in women's education means very little unless those women can bring their skills to bear in the economy. We desperately need pro-growth policies for innumerable reasons — not the least of which is to present these women with a vibrant economy in which they can find meaningful employment and lead their families toward a better future. Many low-income women and their families struggle to make ends meet and remain stuck in the same income quintile, generation after generation. Conservatives should be at the forefront of providing single mothers with economic opportunity through education, meaningful levers of mobility, and a growing and dynamic economy.


The best conservative policies have always aimed to enable human flourishing and to encourage opportunity for all. Republicans should carry on this tradition by ensuring that government does not discourage or prevent women from having meaningful, rewarding careers.

Some of these reforms fit easily into the broader Republican agenda, and all of them can and should be advanced with conservative values in mind. Conservatives should be the foremost champions of women's work and upward economic mobility, not just because it's good politics but because it's good for women and good for the economy. Removing barriers to women's work and ensuring that women are adequately compensated for their contributions to the economy should be a priority.

Abby M. McCloskey is an economist and a contributor to Forbes.


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