The demise of Roe v. Wade is raising alarms among abortion rights advocates that historic gains for lower-income women in the workplace will be in jeopardy.
Some economists — including Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen — argue that access to abortion opened up opportunities for many of the most financially vulnerable women to enter the labor force and earn higher wages. They fear that new limits on the practice will not only hurt those people but the overall economy as well at a time when inflation is raging and low workforce participation looms as an obstacle to the recovery.
“It’s clear that women have already been facing barriers to full participation in the economy,” said Kate Bahn, chief economist at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, a progressive think tank. “Overturning Roe imposes more barriers.”
While the likely impact of the ruling on the labor force isn’t clear-cut — some conservative economists say it could be minor — a wave of academic studies in recent decades suggest that the option to terminate a pregnancy increases economic freedom, especially for women of color.
Yellen said at a Senate hearing last month that banning abortion “would have very damaging effects on the economy and would set women back decades,” limiting their involvement in the workforce by making it harder to balance career and family. That drew a rebuke from Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the only Black Republican senator, who said framing the abortion debate around labor force participation “feels callous to me.”
Yet Yellen said avoiding poverty and enhancing quality of life were also at issue.
More than 2 million fewer Americans are actively connected to the labor market than before the pandemic, which has fed worker shortages, contributed to production and transportation delays and fueled inflation, hitting lower-income people the hardest. The drop in labor force participation was particularly acute among Black and Hispanic women as well as people with young children, according to Federal Reserve researchers.
“A single woman, earning an average wage, living with a child aged 0 to 5 was 5 percentage points more likely to exit the labor force relative to a similar woman with no children at home,” according to a Fed paper by Katherine Lim and Mike Zabek.
Labor force participation had already been declining for women since the turn of the century when it peaked at 60 percent, a factor in the Biden administration’s recent failed push to increase government spending for affordable child care.
Decreased access to abortion could further hurt employment opportunities for those women, abortion rights advocates say, though the full net effect is hard to calculate at this point.
“It’s not cut or dry; we can generally say there might be some marginal impacts on labor force participation,” said Rachel Greszler, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. She said some women are likely to take greater precautions to avoid getting pregnant and cited the relatively high number of women who have gotten abortions — 60 percent — who already have kids.
“In general, most women do continue to participate in the labor force after having children,” Greszler said.
Meanwhile, many people who get abortions are already more likely to have less economic opportunity, regardless of whether they are parents, she said.
According to a 2016 survey by the Guttmacher Institute, which supports abortion rights, roughly three-quarters of people who get abortions have low incomes and half are below the poverty line. Advocacy groups are warning that those people could see a further hit to wages, whether from needing to take time off work to travel to another state, carrying a pregnancy to term or caring for an unplanned child.
The ability to terminate a pregnancy has also led to higher educational attainment and earning potential for women in the years since Roe, research shows.
More than 150 economists and researchers filed a brief with the Supreme Court before the decision saying “abortion legalization had large effects on women’s education, labor force participation and earnings,” especially for Black people.
A 2021 paper from American University professor Kelly Jones echoed that point. Black women who had access to abortion before age 24 went to school on average for 2.5 to 3 years longer and were two to three times as likely to finish college.
Research from the Washington Center for Equitable Growth suggests that women in states with more restrictive abortion laws were 7.6 percent less likely to go into a higher-paid occupation. And a paper from Ohio State University researcher Ali Abboud found that postponing motherhood for one year increased wage rates by 11 percent.
“Over time, teenage mothers did somewhat worse economically than their classmates who had not become parents in their teen years,” said Frank Furstenberg, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, who conducted a 30-year study of more than 300 teen moms.
Asha Banerjee, an economic analyst at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, argued that the financial consequences for some women could be particularly large because states that are likely to ban abortion also tend to have fewer social services.
“This decision is hitting first in the states where it is as economically difficult as possible to support oneself, let alone carry out a pregnancy and raise a child,” she said in a webinar this week on the economic fallout from the reversal of Roe.
Greszler of the Heritage Foundation said that those opposed to abortion are thinking through the need for help in those states.
“This is now the focus of some in the pro-life movement: how to support women and children in states where there is no longer access to abortion,” she said.