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Do Long Commutes Discourage Married Women From Working?

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It's easy to reduce commuting to a simple measure of getting to and from work, but its residual impact on our personal lives is becoming clearer every day. Commuting causes us stress and general displeasure, which no doubt sours many a mood and stirs up many a marital argument, though the side-effects aren't all bad. As we reported last spring, couples who commute in the same direction actually (if oddly) have happier marriages.

New evidence suggests that commute times may influence whether or not married women work at all. In research set for publication in the Journal of Urban Economics, a trio of scholars led by Dan Black of the University of Chicago reports that cities with longer average commutes have lower rates of married women in the workforce. The results suggest that commuting, above and beyond other factors, drives the disparity in the female labor force found across major American cities:

We believe that many factors are at play in producing the large observed local variation in female labor supply across the U.S., but, we argue, one explanation stands out: Married women, particularly married women with young children, are very sensitive to commuting times when making labor force participation decisions.

The research was inspired by the wide variation in married women workers that exists in U.S. metropolitan areas — a trend that's gone "largely unnoticed," according to Black and company. (For the purposes of the study, the female population consisted of white women, age 25 to 55, with a high school education.) At the high end of the spectrum is Minneapolis, where 79 percent of women were employed as of the 2000 Census. At the low end is New York City, where that was true of only 52 percent.

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