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Women Breadwinners, Men Unemployed

The employment situation over the past 19 months has dramatically changed for millions of American families. Since the Great Recession began in December 2007, there has been a sharp rise in the number of married couples where a woman is left to bring home the bacon because her husband is unemployed. What is striking is not only how many more families are experiencing unemployment among husbands, but also how this loss of the traditional breadwinner has occurred across a variety of demographic groups.

The reason that more married couples now boast women as the primary breadwinners is because men have experienced greater job losses than women over the course of this recession, losing three-out-of-every-four jobs lost. This puts a real strain on family budgets since women typically earn only 78 cents for every dollar men earn. In the typical married-couple family where both spouses work, the wife brings home just over a third—35.6 percent—of the family’s income. [1]

What’s equally worrisome is that most families receive health insurance through the employers of their husbands. So when husbands lose their jobs, families are left struggling to find ways to pay for health insurance at the same time they are living on just a third of their prior income. These new health insurance costs can be crushing if families have to turn to the individual insurance market, where coverage is limited and expensive, or pay for continued coverage through their husbands’ old insurance policies, which is possible because of federal law but is also expensive—though the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act subsidized that cost for many workers. Still, many families with an unemployed worker simply have to go without health insurance.

The job losses mounting among husbands are acute this year. Figure 1 below shows that the share of families where women hold down a job while men are unemployed jumped sharply in 2009 compared to 2007 at the peak of the last economic cycle. [2] In the first five months of 2009, 5.4 percent of working wives had an unemployed husband at home—that is, a husband who was actively searching for work, but could not find a job—compared to an average of 2.4 percent over the first five months of 2007, more than double the number of unemployed husbands in 2009. This means that there are 2.0 million working wives today with an unemployed husband.

Figure 1

In contrast, working husbands continue to be less likely to have an unemployed wife. In the first five months of 2009, an average of only 3.3 percent of husbands had an unemployed wife at home, up from 1.6 percent. Importantly, the difference in the shares of unemployed husbands and wives is not due to women telling the surveyor that they are “out of the labor force” rather than report they are out of a job, willing to work, and actively seeking employment. Figure 2 below examines non-working spouses and shows not only a sharp rise in the share of working wives who have a non-working husband but also the share of both husbands and wives who are either unavailable to work or are not looking for a job.

Figure 2

So far this year, 15.6 percent of working wives have a husband who is not working, up a stunning 3.5 percentage points from early 2007, when 12.1 percent of working wives had a husband who did not work. But working husbands did not see a similarly large increase in their chances of having a non-working wife. In 2007, 29.4 percent of husbands had a non-working wife, up only 0.8 percentage points to 30.2 percent in 2009.

Families with children have been hit especially hard hit by unemployment. Among working wives in families with a small child—under age six—at home, 5.9 percent have an unemployed husband. This is higher than among families with a working wife but with no child under age six at home, where 5.3 percent have an unemployed husband.

Among families with a working wife and a child under age 18, the share with an unemployed husband is 5.7 percent, compared to 5.0 percent among those with no children. This means that there are 1 million working wives with children at home, but an unemployed husband. The numbers are smaller for families with a working husband and an unemployed wife. The share with a child under age 18 is 3.2 percent—compared to 3.4 percent among those with no children.

The share of workers with an unemployed spouse is lower than the overall unemployment rate of 9.5 percent. Typically, married workers have lower unemployed rates compared to single workers and they stay unemployed for shorter periods of time. There are many reasons why this is the case, but one is that married workers may have more of an incentive to find work as quickly as possible—if possible—because there are more people relying on their earnings, compared to single workers—at least single workers without children. Of course, single mothers, who typically have higher unemployment than other workers, do have children relying on their earnings and are under similar pressures to find employment.

Especially striking in the recently released data is the sharp increase in breadwinner wives and unemployed husbands across demographic groups. Table 1 shows, for example, that among young (ages 18 to 24) working, one-in-ten married women (9.9 percent) has an unemployed husband, up 5.5 percentage points from early 2007. Among working women without a high school degree, slightly less than one-in-10 (8.3 percent) have an unemployed husband, up four percentage points since 2007. This share of women with unemployed husbands has increased 2.2 percentage points among wives with a college degree.

Table 1

There has also been a sharp rise in the share of families where both the husband and wife are unemployed. Between the first five months of 2007 and of 2009, the share of married-couple families with both spouses unemployed rose to 0.5 percent from 0.1 percent, meaning that one-in-500 families is struggling with dual unemployment. The share of families with a child under age 18 with both parents unemployed is 0.6 percent, meaning that one-in-165 families with children have both parents looking for work.

Among some demographic groups dual-unemployment rises to one-in-100. Young couples (with a spouse between 18 and 24), less-educated couples (where either spouse has no more than a high-school degree), and African-American families (0.9 percent of African-American wives in the labor force are unemployed and have an unemployed husband, while 0.8 percent of African-American husbands in the labor force are unemployed with an unemployed wife).

The Great Recession that began in December 2007 has now lasted 19 months. The unemployment picture remains tough: Unemployment rose to 9.5 percent in June and 29.0 percent of unemployed workers have been out of work for at least six months—a shocking fact given that 3.4 million of the 6.5 million people to have lost their job since the recession began were laid off only within the past six months. There are now more than five unemployed workers available for every job opening and the employment prospects for men seem especially challenging given the continued lay-offs in manufacturing and construction. Families will continue to rely on the earnings of a working woman for a long time to come.

As families need the earnings of wives more than ever, policymakers should focus their attention on ensuring that women—including mothers—have access to good jobs with benefits that will support their families. There could not be a more important moment to pass legislation ensuring pay equity for all workers. Nor could there be a more important time to ensure that caregivers are not discriminated against by employers.

The Paycheck Fairness Act, which passed the House in January, would go a long way toward eradicating pay inequalities, but it is languishing in the Senate. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued new guidelines in 2007 to help employers avoid caregiver discrimination, but more could be done to use develop this guidance to ensure that every caregiver has the same access to good jobs as other workers. These and other policy solutions to the crisis facing women breadwinners need to be acted upon swiftly.


[1] Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Women in the Labor Force: A Databook,” (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Labor, 2008), Table 24.

[2] The data analysis for this report was conducted by Jeff Chapman. The analysis compares the experiences of married couples from the first five months of 2007 to the first five months of 2009. Note that data are only for married couples and does not include cohabitating or lesbian or gay partners.

Heather Boushey is Senior Economist at the Center for American Progress. To read more analysis and recommendations from the Center on these issues please go to the Economy page on our website.