New data released last week by the Labor Department shows the continuing consequences of the Great Recession for unmarried women. This group continues to experience high and extended unemployment as well as underemployment, and this underscores the urgent need for Congress and the administration to continue to focus on job creation and policies to spur demand and assist the unemployed.
High unemployment poses enormous challenges for all kinds of workers, but it can be a tragedy for unmarried women. Unmarried women already face higher-than-average poverty, many are responsible for family members including children and elders, and they frequently do not have a partner to rely on during times of economic distress.
Last month, 10.8 percent of unmarried women (age 16 and over) were unemployed (data by marital status is not seasonally adjusted). Of unmarried women who had jobs, 8.1 percent were working part time but said that they wanted to work full time. Nationally, unemployment was at 9.9 percent and 6.6 percent of workers worked part time but would prefer full-time work (part-time data is not seasonally adjusted). Women who head a household without a spouse (with a child, parent, or other dependent household member) faced a slightly higher unemployment rate than other unmarried women, at 11.0 percent in April.
Once unmarried women have lost a job they are having an especially tough time finding a new one, like workers in general. The typical unemployed unmarried woman who is widowed, divorced, or separated has spent 25.4 weeks actively looking for work. The typical never-married unemployed woman has spent 21.2 weeks seeking a new job.
Many unmarried women are struggling with unemployment spells lasting longer than six months. More than 4 in 10 (43.2 percent) never-married unemployed women have been out of work and searching for a new job for at least six months, while nearly half (46.5 percent) of previously married women are among these “long-term unemployed” (see figure).
The youngest women have the highest unemployment among all unmarried women. Unmarried women ages 16 to 24 had a 15.5 percent unemployment rate in April compared to 9.7 percent of unmarried women ages 25 to 54 and 7.1 percent among unmarried women age 55 and older. Younger, unmarried women tend to be “never married” rather than divorced, widowed, or separated, and never-married women are experiencing higher unemployment than other women: Among never-married women,12.0 percent were unemployed in April compared to 9.0 percent of previously married women.
High unemployment among young, unmarried women may have long-term consequences for them and their families. High unemployment at the start of a career can potentially drag down lifetime earnings by setting a low baseline when a worker finally gets her first job as well as straightforward lost income during unemployment. What’s more, young people who graduated last year and have been unable to find a job—or find a steady job—will be competing with this year’s graduates. Employers may see last year’s grads as “stale” and focus on the new cohort of “fresh” grads.
Young unmarried women may not be well prepared to cope with a spell of unemployment, either. Since they are young, they have had little time to save up for an emergency such as an unemployment stretch, and younger workers who do not have as much work experience are less likely to qualify for unemployment benefits.
But while young workers and never-married women have higher levels of unemployment than unmarried women more generally, they also tend to be unemployed for a shorter period of time. Older workers and previously married women who have lower overall unemployment rates and are slightly more likely to be out of work for six months or more.
Long-term unemployment compounds older workers’ economic uncertainty. Older workers and divorced, widowed, or separated women may face their own set of challenges in their job searches. Older workers may have developed more on-the-job skills over their careers and seek employment that matches these skill sets. They are also likely to own a home and have deep ties in a community, making it harder for them to pick up and move for work. And women who were previously married may be returning to the workforce after the end of a marriage—and time out of the workforce—and re-entering the labor market in this economy may be especially challenging.
Unemployment is expected to persist for some time, and the time many workers—especially young workers—spend unemployed is likely to have repercussions into the future. The variety of challenges American workers—especially unmarried women—are facing in the continuing labor market recession speak to the need for Congress to act. There are three ways it can help.
First, Congress should focus on extending unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed and other relief programs such as subsidies to help the unemployed pay for their health insurance coverage through the COBRA program. Congress recently extended these programs through June 2 and May 31, respectively, but they will need to be extended again as that date approaches. It should extend these programs through the end of 2010 and continue to focus on job-creation policies.
Second, rather than set a nationwide cut-off for extended unemployment benefits, Congress should improve the unemployment insurance trigger system. This way, they could fix the trigger that should automatically turn off extended benefits once a state’s economy has pulled out of the depths of the labor market recession.
Finally, Congress should focus on youth unemployment by expanding programs like AmeriCorps and YouthBuild, which can give young workers the start they need even in this troubled economy. These programs can help young workers and other unemployed workers build skills while earning money during these tough economic times.
Like all workers, unmarried women continue to face high rates and extended periods of unemployment. Unmarried women face different challenges in the labor market—with young workers facing higher unemployment and older workers facing more long-term unemployment—but the necessity of an improved labor market, as well as public policies to support unemployed workers, is an urgent matter for all.
Heather Boushey is Senior Economist and Liz Weiss is a Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress.