Why are so many women dropping out of the workforce?

Mari Villaluna never wanted to be a stay-at-home mom. The 36-year-old spent a decade building up a resume as a career counselor and tutor in San Francisco schools after serving in the U.S. Army.

She made about $42,000 at an employment agency, and was regularly sought out by potential employers. After she gave birth to her first child last year, she drew a star on her calendar to mark the day she was supposed to return to work.

“I had a very established career,” Villaluna said. Then, in September, her plan to get a state subsidy for child care fell through, and the single mom couldn’t afford to spend thousands of dollars on private day care. The day she gave up her beloved 9-to-5 job, she cried for hours.

Villaluna’s decision offers a clue to an economic mystery: Why are American women disappearing from the workforce?

The answer could have stark implications for future growth.

For half a century after World War II, women barreled into the job market in numbers that surged higher every year. They drove most of the rise in real household income for decades and boosted the economy’s total output at a time when men were dropping out of the job market.

Then, all of a sudden, they stopped. Since 2000, the share of women working in their prime earning years has declined.

In 1948, just over a third of prime-age women had a job or sought one. By 1999, after five decades of unrelenting progress, 76.8% of those women were in the workforce.

Since then, the participation rate slipped to 74.3%, and the number of women not looking for work grew by more than 12,000.

Some see the abrupt reversal as an unsurprising result of more than two decades without any major legislation making it easier for new parents to take time off or pay for childcare. Any number of articles and analyses have pondered the effects of a stubborn gender pay gap, inflexible schedules that keep women out of the executive suite and an undercurrent of discrimination that, at its worst, leaves women vulnerable to regular harassment.

But top economists now are pointing to another explanation. Women seem to be leaving the workforce for some of the same reasons men are: Middle-class jobs are in short supply and working at the bottom pays less than it used to.

Single women without children drove most of the downturn in women’s workforce participation from 1999 through 2007, according to a study by professor Robert Moffitt of Johns Hopkins University.

Those women don’t have to care for a child and they aren’t counting on a partner to provide for them. They are, Moffitt said, “the same as a lot of men … even though it sounds a little strange to make that analogy.”

They’re also staring down the same long odds as men who lost their footing in an economy in which low-skill jobs that pay well have all been shipped abroad or obliterated by technology.

“Usually people have men in mind when they are talking about the decline in manufacturing and automation, but that happens at the secretarial level too, as computers replace lower-level staff,” Moffitt said.

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The collapse of blue-collar jobs for American men is well-known, thanks in part to the movement that powered President Trump’s election. A peak of 97.4% prime-age men were in the labor force in 1953. That share declined for decades, plunged during the financial crisis, and hit 88.5% last year.

But women-dominated fields for low-skill workers also are in a rut. Wages barely budged for women with a high school degree or less over the last decade, while college-educated women continued to get decent raises.

In home healthcare services, social assistance and laundry services — three industries that are heavily reliant on women — hourly pay for rank-and-file workers has increased by less than $2, in today’s dollars, since 1990.

Villaluna’s paycheck fell short of her aspirations. After giving birth, she put her monthly take-home, around $3,000, on one side of a sheet of paper, and on the other wrote down all of her expenses, plus the roughly $2,500 she expected to pay for child care. She’d wind up behind by $15 a month.

Over the last few years, things had gotten better for Villaluna, but never by much. She made $18 an hour, then $20, and then plateaued. “I was definitely inching. It was always just a little more,” she said.

She went into day-care centers with her newborn daughter and begged the people working there to help her get state funding for child care.

“I went in person, to people’s faces, like ‘please pick us,’ ” she said. “I really, really wanted to go back to work.”

In California, 434,000 children of low-income parents get subsidies for child care, though the state hasn’t updated the income limit to qualify for more than a decade. Another 1.5 million Californians are eligible for the programs, according to the California Budget & Policy Center.

Villaluna gave up. “No matter what job I get, we are going to be in the negative, so I might as well take care of her myself,” she said.

Now she’s living on less than $200 a month from the military that she receives because she became disabled while serving, as well as $600 a month from CalWorks, California’s welfare program. She signed up for the benefit after she learned she couldn’t go back to work.

The federal government subsidizes her housing as part of her benefits as a veteran.

Across the country, parents’ hourly spending on child care has shot up since the mid-1990s, prompting many families to ditch professionals and watch their kids themselves, according to a recent analysis by a Princeton researcher.

Day care in San Francisco costs up to $2,400 a month on average, according to the California Child Development Administrators Assn. That means that for someone working full time in a job that pays the city’s $13-an-hour minimum-wage, a year of child care can cost about $1,700 more than a year’s salary, before taxes.

The rise in child-care costs drove down women’s employment 5% from 1990 to 2010, according to the Princeton research.

That may be a sign that the social and legal changes that were pushing women to work aren’t as powerful as they used to be. Among developed countries, the U.S. went from having the sixth-highest share of women at work in 1999 to the 23rd highest in 2015, according to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

“We got the low-hanging fruit. Now women are participating at much higher levels, so the progress has slowed down,” said Sandra Black, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who was on President Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers from 2015 through 2017.

Discrimination and flattening wages have always been weighing on women, Black said. “Now the progress that we had seen before in improving women’s participation is no longer sufficient to offset these negative forces.”

Lorie James ended her 39-year career because she was too tired to keep fighting for recognition. When James started working for Los Angeles County in 1990, she operated a calculating machine the size of a cash register, tallying up business taxes for the county assessor’s office downtown.

It was 10 years before she was offered a position in human resources, and suddenly she lunged forward on a fast track. She got a bachelor’s degree in labor studies and received four promotions in quick succession.

James, 58, had started her career planning early. When she was 15, she bought copies of the Sunday newspaper to read the classifieds section. She made careful mental notes on the skills companies were looking for and what they were willing to pay people who fit the bill.

“I think it’s part of my purpose,” she said.

But her career hit a series of roadblocks that have picked off countless women on their way up the ladder: a manager who had championed her quit and left her rudderless; she was passed over for promotions and was, she felt, unfairly penalized in performance evaluations.

A black woman, James detected a whiff of prejudice. She complained once to her boss but dropped the matter before anyone carried out a formal investigation. “I didn’t want to get blackballed,” James said.

So last year, James took her pension and started looking for a new gig. She’s submitted 50 applications in 12 months and hasn’t landed anything yet.

“I am not ready to give up working,” she said.

In a speech at Brown University this month, Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet L. Yellen talked about her family’s place in the march of women into the workplace, and the hurdles they ran up against.

Yellen’s husband’s aunt, Betty Stafford, was a mathematician who wrote several seminal papers with her husband but didn’t get promoted to full professor alongside him. She continued to produce “enviable” research, Yellen said, but only reached the status of assistant professor.

“I believe that Betty Stafford Hirschfelder was denied opportunities and greater success simply because she was a woman,” the Fed chief said.

That pattern, left undisturbed, could exact a steep price.

“If these obstacles persist, we will squander the potential of many of our citizens and incur a substantial loss to the productive capacity of our economy,” Yellen warned.

Natalie.Kitroeff@latimes.com

Follow me @NatalieKitro on Twitter

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