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Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton takes the stage to speak at the New School in the Manhattan borough of New York City, July 13, 2015. Clinton put the fight for higher wages for "everyday Americans" at the heart of her economic agenda on Monday, when she made the first major policy speech in her White House bid.
Reuters/Mike Segar
No one has ever been so thrilled to discuss labor force participation.

Hillary Clinton takes aim at Jeb Bush, and at America’s falling rate of participation in the workforce

By Tim Fernholz

Hillary Clinton laid out her economic agenda as a battle to raise the incomes of average Americans, and didn’t hesitate to slam her Republican rivals for the US presidency—in some cases by name—over their ideas for jumpstarting the economy.

“The measure of success must be how much incomes rise for hard-working families,” the former US secretary of state told an audience in New York, “and not some arbitrary growth target untethered to people’s lives and livelihoods.”

That was a not-so-subtle dig at former Florida governor and Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush, who has said that as president he would make 4% economic growth his target, despite the historical difficulty of achieving that goal:

While Bush has yet to outline his agenda fully, he has said that he wants Americans to work more, despite the fact that they already work quite a bit and that working more hours doesn’t solve the US productivity problem. “He must not have met very many American workers,” Clinton joked, saying that American workers “don’t need a lecture, they need a raise.”

But if Clinton wouldn’t advise that people work more, she would at least like to see more people working. Participation in the US workforce has fallen in recent years, and less overall work in the country means less production—and less growth.

In particular, Clinton emphasized a desire to bring more women into the workforce. The flood of women entering the workforce in the latter half of the last century boosted growth, but the US, one of the few advanced countries without paid family leave, has fallen to 17th in the OECD’s ranking of female labor participation.

Clinton argued that the country needs better family-leave policies so that working women can be confident that a career won’t stand between their—and their partner’s—ability to care for their family; this would likely result in more women working over the course of their adult lifetime, and thus more prosperity in the US.

The policy may seem counter-intuitive—give more time off to get more overall work—but it has empirical backing. The political challenge will be convincing businesses to share the near-term costs of such a policy before the long-term benefits kick in.

This idea fits with the broad theme of Clinton’s speech, discussing a problem that “didn’t start with the recession, and it didn’t end with the recovery,” as fundamental trends in the economy toward skilled labor and flexible jobs have changed the traditional calculus for workers.

Those changes, and the anxieties they’ve caused for many Americans, will be at the forefront of the debate over domestic policy in the long campaign ahead.

Tim Fernholz
Reporter
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