Friday, May 18, 2012

On work hours in the US and Europe

by Indraneel Chakraborty, Hans Holter and Serhiy Stepanchuk


May 18, 2012

It is no secret that Americans work more than Europeans – 30% more according to recent studies. Many economists point to higher taxes in Europe as a major cause. This column suggests that divorce rates also play a role, particularly for women's labour supply.

According to recent research, Americans work 30% more than Europeans (Prescott 2004 and Rogerson 2006). This was not the case in early 1970s when Western Europeans worked more than Americans. What accounts for the large differences between countries today? Our study finds that divorce rates and tax rates together on average explain 58% of the difference in terms of hours worked between the US and 17 European countries.

Our research starts by trying to uncover the determinants of cross-country differences in work hours through analysing the hours worked by different demographic subgroups (Chakraborty et al. 2012). We find that women are typically the largest contributors to the aggregate differences. European women work less than American women, irrespective of whether we look at single or married women, or women with and without children.

Cross-country variation in tax systems is one of the most popular proposed explanations for the observed discrepancy in work hours between the US and Europe. The basic intuition here is straightforward – higher labour income taxes reduce the incentives to work. However, for the 18 countries in our sample, we find that, while there is indeed a negative correlation between various measures of taxation and hours worked by men, the corresponding correlation for women is close to 0. Figure 1 below plots the correlation between male and female labour supply and the "average effective tax rate", a measure that combines the average labour income tax and consumption tax in each country into a single tax rate.

Figure 1. Tax rates and labour supply by gender


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