The Well-Being of American Women

By Published on .

The American Demographics Index of Well-Being tracks changes in the quality of life for the typical American. Of course, changes in the standard of living may not be shared equally across all persons. For example, women are making faster gains than men, according to Francine Blau, a professor of economics at Cornell University and a researcher at the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Blau's research in the March 1998 Journal of Economic Literature documents the major trends in the well- being of American women over the past 25 years. Her work quantifies the changing stature of women in the U.S. and how those changes stack up when women are compared with their male counterparts. Like our Index of Well-Being, her work considers a variety of statistical indicators and includes non-economic indicators that have an impact on the quality of life. Her data measure labor force participation rates, wages, leisure time, domestic violence, and much more.

Blau concludes that there is "rising gender equality" in America. In 1979, women earned 60 cents for every dollar a man earned. That figure climbed to 68 cents in 1989 and 73 cents in 1994. This amounts to an improvement of 23 percent. Similar gains occurred in women's and men's labor force participation rates, and self-employment rates.

There is a tendency for women to find work in traditionally lower-paying occupations. Blau raises the question of whether this is due to women's preferences or discrimination, and she cites research supporting both explanations. Nevertheless, her own research indicates that occupational segregation by gender has "greatly diminished," which explains at least a portion of the improvement in women's wages.

Not all of the news is good. Wages of women with less than a high school diploma have declined over the years. "Since 1979, the [inflation-adjusted] wages of female college graduates have risen by 22.7 percent, while the [inflation-adjusted] wages of female high school dropouts fell by 8.8 percent," writes Blau. This finding reflects the growing income disparity between more and less educated Americans. Male dropouts face a similar situation. Fortunately, the percentage of Americans without a high school diploma has diminished.

Among married couples where both work, women's wages are rapidly catching up to their husbands. This may explain why time spent on housework by husbands is up.

The only criticism of this impressive treatise on the changing status of women in America is that Blau does not put all of her indicators together into one number that reflects the progress women have made. That is something we do each month with our Index of American Well-Being. In March 1998, the Index stood at 104.37, indicating that the typical American is 4.37 percent better off than in April 1990, the base month for the Index. This represents a rise of 0.15 percent over February 1998 and an increase of 1.81 percent from March 1997.

Two sectors explain the lion's share of the growth in well-being in March. The productivity and technology sector advanced 0.63 percent, while the leisure sector tacked on 0.22 percent. The income and employment sector edged up just 0.06 percent as incomes advanced, but the employment rate fell.

Two sectors lost ground in March. Consumer attitudes slipped 1.50 percent in March, as they decreased from lofty levels. The social and physical environment shed 1.15 percent. Divorce rates declined, but crime and the number of endangered species increased.

One in 8 U.S. adults travels every July or August, compared with 1 in 20 in January, according to the Travel Industry Association of America. California and Florida benefit most: in 1995, travelers spent $58 billion in California and $43 billion in Florida. Travelers to New York spent $30 billion.

Travel and tourism expenditures are projected to reach $473 billion in 1998, making it the nation's largest services export industry. Total travel spending is up 95 percent from 1986, with domestic travelers contributing 80 percent.

Cities and historic sites are the most popular destinations, according to the 1996 Better Homes and Gardens Family Vacation Survey. In 1996, 41 percent of respondents reported visiting a historic site and 40 percent reported visiting a city. Camping is also popular.

In 1995 and 1996, one-third of all respondents said that they shopped while on vacation, according to the Travel Industry Association of America. The least popular were golf, tennis, and skiing (4 percent each).

Most Popular