Posted by: Josh Lehner | April 8, 2022

Trailing Spouses in Oregon (Graph of the Week)

Trailing spouses are those who follow their partner to another city for work. This is a key topic that comes up frequently when our office speaks to regional audiences. In particular we have discussed this on the coast and in the gorge with business groups and local economic development folks. The basic premise is a family relocates for a job opportunity, typically for the husband, and then the local labor market maybe doesn’t have the same opportunities for the spouse, typically the wife. Generally speaking, the wife sacrifices her career for the advancement of her husband’s.

This week I came across a fantastic paper from Professor Janna E Johnson from the University of Minnesota. Paper here, slides here. Professor Johnson’s research brings together the impact of occupational licensing, how that results in less interstate migration, and then how it impacts trailing spouses. All three of these topics individually are vital, and bringing them together makes for a fascinating paper, to say nothing of how she layers on controls for educational attainment, race and ethnicity, different types of occupations and licenses, having kids and so on.

Bottom line: Migration is lower if the husband holds the license compared to if the wife does, implying husband’s status is a more important factor in determining location. Labor market impacts are greater for women than men. Wives are more likely to leave the labor force or switch out of their licensed occupation, while similarly licensed husbands are largely unaffected. Some of this is driven by women’s tendency to enter occupations with higher re-licensure costs, and some of the migration decisions appear to be timed with life events like having a child, which impacts labor force participation.

Professor Johnson’s paper is interesting and on-topic. It helps answer empirically a lot of the questions asked about these issues. With that inspiration I turned to the same data set she uses in the paper and tried to find some local impacts. Keep in mind these are small sample sizes and I am looking for casual inference and not the full-fledged model Professor Johnson uses. Even so, the Oregon impacts are broadly consistent, as seen below in the latest Graph of the Week.

What this chart shows is the change in employment rates among working-age married couples, where both spouses worked the year before. The bars in the chart are the changes in employment rates relative to the working-age married couples who did not move. As you can see, employment is lower for movers than non-movers. This is to be expected. However, in keeping with Professor Johnson’s findings wives have noticeably larger declines in employment than do husbands. This is particularly true for longer distanced moves.

When it came to our office’s conversations on the coast and in the gorge, part of the discussion was for families relocating from larger communities to smaller ones. This does tend to limit the total number of job opportunities, which may be particularly challenging for the trailing spouse, especially if she holds an occupational license that needs to be re-licensed in a different state.

My first thought is about working from home in a pre-pandemic sense. When people vote with their feet to live in your community, but they don’t find a local job that meets their criteria, they tend to either bring a job with them to work remotely, or they start their own business, increasing local entrepreneurship along the way. The less good outcomes would be having to switch careers to have a job, or dropping out of the labor force entirely.

My second thought is thinking about working from home in a pandemic or post-pandemic sense. With remote work becoming more common, maybe some of these dynamics of trailing spouses will be less challenging for households. However this would only apply to the one-third of occupations that can be done remotely. The vast majority of workers need to be at a physical location to build homes, cook food, or give care. Plus, as Professor Johnson notes in her paper, it’s not always just the actual re-licensing costs, but also the impact of losing your network of clients you build up prior to your move like those working in, say, cosmetology or real estate face.

Overall this is a lot of food for thought on important socio-economic topics. Happy Friday everyone.


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