Unemployment Statistics Obscure the Hit Taken by Single Moms

Break down today’s unemployment stats, and it looks like women are faring much better than men in the great recession. That is, unless they’re single and raising kids.

Much has been made of the fact that, when examined through the prism of gender, the Great Recession appears to have affected the employment of men far more than that of women. And, taken as a whole, that’s true. According to figures released on Friday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for men (age 20 and over) stands at 10 percent, while 7.9 percent of women rank among the unemployed. (When the recession began in December 2007, the unemployment rate among men and women was the same: 4.4 percent.)

But spend some time rummaging among the unemployment statistics, and you’ll find a significant group of women struggling mightily against a brutal economic tide: single women with children. They, the breadwinners of their families, are more than twice as likely to be unemployed than married women who have a spouse present. While this has been true for the last ten years (PDF), its effects are amplified in the current economic crisis.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics, in a report released on Friday, showed the unemployment rate for married women at 6.1 percent, while that of single women “who maintain families,” in the parlance of the BLS, reached a whopping 11.6 percent — 68 percent higher than when the recession began. Add to that the fact that women, as a whole, earn only 77 cents for every dollar a man brings home, and you find many single women whose situation has gone from difficult to dire.

Indeed, married members of both sexes did better maintaining employment over the course of 2009, according to the BLS’s own annual averages of its Household Data monthly surveys: 12 percent of people who had never married were unemployed by the end of the year; those who were widowed, separated or divorced suffered an unemployment rate of 9.2 percent, while married people (defined as having a spouse “present”), coasted by with a 5.5 percent rate of unemployment.

The effect on the nation’s children has yet to be fully understood: 20 percent of all children today grow up in families headed by a single mother.

What is going on here? Are employers picking unmarried mothers over married workers when deciding on who is to be let go, just because they dislike unmarried mothers? Perhaps. But a more probable explanation is found elsewhere: The married and the unmarried differ from each other in ways which directly correlate with unemployment. As Liz Weiss and Heather Boussey write in their November 2009 article:

The differences in unemployment between married and unmarried women may in part reflect other demographics that come into play in unemployment rates, in that women (and men) who are unmarried tend to be younger, have less education, and are more racially and ethnically diverse than married women (and men).”

To see what all this means, it helps to turn statistics into concrete examples. Instead of wading through the BLS tables as percentages, imagine yourself as the drill-sergeant giving orders to a lineup of 100 individuals of a particular type. You call the unemployed to take a step forward. What happens if the hundred people in front of you are a general representative sample of the civilian U.S. labor force? Roughly ten will step forward, which corresponds to the 9.7 percent unemployment figure given for February 2010.

But what if all 100 standing before you are young people, between the ages of 20 and 24? Your call for the unemployed to step forward will result in 16 “volunteers” (to match the unemployment rate of 16.0 percent for that group). Even if all those younger privates were female, the step-forward call would result in more than 10 responses (to match the female unemployment rate of 13.1 percent for that age group).

Now let’s look at education and unemployment. Let’s make two groups of 100 privates each. The first group consists of those with less than a high school diploma, the second of those with at least a bachelor’s degree. Now yell for the unemployed in both groups to step forward, hut, hut. What’s the result? Sixteen from the first group step forward (15.6 percent), and five from the second group (5.0 percent).

The point of this silly exercise is to remind us that not all groups in the labor force suffer the same danger of unemployment. It also brings home the reason why the highly educated might not observe the great misery unemployment causes: Unemployment is concentrated among the less educated workers, and those workers mostly live in their own barracks, so to say. At present, the unemployment rate among people with college degrees is a mere 5.0 percent, compared with 15.6 percent for those who did not graduate high school. Some 10 percent of. people who have a high school diploma, but no education beyond that, find themselves unemployed.

Unemployment is also higher among major groups of people of color; this is the case even during good economic times. In February, 15.8 percent of African Americans, 12.4 percent of Latinos, 8.8 percent of whites and 8.4 percent of Asians were unemployed in the sense of the most common official definition. While men have a higher unemployment rate than women (10.0 percent vs. 8.0 percent) — the traditionally male industries construction and manufacturing have been hit especially hard — the rates for African American women and Latinas (12.1 percent and 11.3 percent, respectively) are still higher than the rate for white men (9.0 percent).

All these examples are simple snapshots of some groups which suffer from greater-than-average rates of unemployment. Unmarried women with children are more likely to be found in all those group pictures than married women because they are younger, less educated and more racially and ethnically diverse. Even if they faced no additional workplace discrimination aimed at their marital/maternal status, these factors place them at a higher risk of joblessness than other women.

That higher risk affects not only the single mothers themselves, but many of America’s children. Having two adults capable of earning wages — or at least of looking for jobs — makes a big difference for the financial well-being of a family. Families headed by a single parent don’t have that private safety-net. (This is true not only for families headed by an unmarried mother, but also for those headed by an unmarried father. Unfortunately, the BLS statistics don’t provide information of the latter group.) With one-fifth of all children growing up in families headed by a single mother, and an estimated additional 5 percent in families headed by a single father, one in four of America’s children are therefore affected by what happens to single-parent families.

In families such as this, the loss of a parent’s job often sets off a cascade of disaster. When the sole breadwinner of a family loses her or his job, the family may also lose health insurance and housing. Poverty rates among all families headed by unmarried mothers (including those not in the labor force) are high. One in three (PDF) of these families lives in poverty. In 2008 (PDF), 43.5 percent of children in single mother families were counted as poor, compared to 9.9 percent of children living in married-couple families. The poverty rates were especially high for families headed by an African-American woman or by a Latina.

Poor families are poor. This means that they don’t have savings to tide them over a prolonged bout of unemployment. If a poor single mother with children loses her job, what are her alternatives? She could always go on welfare, right?

Well, the Temporary Aid For Needy Families, the replacement of that old-and-much-maligned Aid for Families With Dependent Children, offers an average monthly payment of $372 (PDF), and even that only if the recipient hasn’t exhausted the five-years lifetime cap. But, you say, she might indeed qualify for something better: unemployment insurance.

This was not always the case, because of the work requirements used in determining who was qualified to receive benefits. These tend to discriminate against workers with volatile earnings patterns — something single mothers are more likely to have, given their need to combine care-giving with paid work and the general inflexibility of many low-paying jobs. But Obama’s first stimulus package includes an alternative method of calculating the work requirements, one which lets many more poor single mothers qualify for unemployment benefits in the case of job loss. Those benefits might not be high but they sure beat $372 a month.

Even when times are good, unmarried women with children have higher unemployment rates. Times are certainly not good now, and we should not grow complacent about a general unemployment rate hovering around 10 percent. Far greater suffering than is suggested by that figure hides behind it. As Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, notes, “We have very little support for unemployed workers on purpose, because we want people to work. But if you are out of work for several years to come because you can’t get a job?…It’s not the fault of the unemployed. People in general should be more upset than they are.”

Indeed. And the measly jobs package just passed by the House will do little to change the situation. If we really want to provide relief in the here and now, and provide for the future of the next generation of workers, any subsequent stimulus package must provide more help for those whom unemployment has hit hardest — especially single parents struggling to support children on their own. Such a move would put money into the pockets of those who are most likely to spend it to fuel economic recovery: the poor. It is also the right thing to do in a recession which doesn’t appear to be lifting soon.

The funny thing about the current recession is how fast we have learned to regard news of a 9.7 percent general rate of unemployment, the figure released on Friday by BLS (PDF), as good news. Because it is a teeny-weeny less than the the peak rates of late last year we now hope that the worst of this recession is over. Yet the general unemployment numbers, even if either stable or slightly approved for some groups, hide longer-term suffering and structural problems that will be with us for some time to come.

J. Goodrich is an economist. Her writing has been published in The American Prospect, Ms. magazine and on various political Web sites. She blogs at Echidne of the Snakes.