Changes in Labor Participation and Household Income

The percentage of people active in the labor force has dropped substantially over the past 15 years. Part of this decline appears to be the result of secular factors like the aging of the workforce. However, the participation rate among people in their prime working years—ages 25 to 54—has also fallen. Recent research suggests this decline among prime-age workers can be attributed in large part to lower participation from among the higher-income half of U.S. households. For most people, active participation in the labor market is socially desirable for several reasons. One major benefit is the set of skills and abilities a person gains on the job. Long periods out of employment can mean a worker loses valuable skills. In terms of the overall labor force, this loss is compounded, lowering the accumulation of human capital and negatively affecting economic growth in the long run. As such, a decline in labor force participation, particularly among workers in their prime, is a significant concern for policymakers. Over the past 15 years, the labor force participation (LFP) rate in the United States has fallen significantly. Various factors have contributed to this decline, including the aging of the population (Daly et al., 2013) and changes in welfare programs (Burkhauser and Daly, 2013). In this Economic Letter, we look at another potential contribution, the changing relationship between household income and the decision to participate in the labor force.

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