The Recession Brings Higher Unemployment to Unmarried Women

The Great Recession has led to excruciatingly high unemployment and extended joblessness for workers around the nation. For many families, the loss of a job not only means going without needed income, but losing health insurance coverage as well. Some of the hardest-hit groups are teenagers, minorities, those without a college degree or high school diploma, and unmarried women—many of whom are mothers or caregivers. The high unemployment of unmarried women, and particularly the 1.3 million unemployed female heads of household who are primary breadwinners for their families, is devastating to their financial circumstances and standard of living.

Data released today by the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that the national unemployment rate reached 10.2 percent in October and the economy has shed 7.3 million jobs since the recession began in December 2007. Men have held just over 7 out of 10 (71.9 percent) of the jobs lost since the recession began (through September 2009, the latest data available). Higher job losses for men are due to the fact that half of the jobs lost have been in manufacturing and construction, which disproportionately employ men. However, in recent months, women’s job losses have begun to mount, having lost more jobs than men have in financial activities, leisure and hospitality, and information industries.


As women’s job losses mount, some women—especially unmarried women—are facing an increasingly grim job market. Unmarried women have much higher unemployment than married women. In October, 10.3 percent of unmarried women age 20 and over (3.3 million) and 5.7 percent of married women (2.1 million) were unemployed (see figure below; all data by marital status is not seasonally adjusted). Although unmarried women represent less than half (46.5 percent) of all women workers, they account for 6 in 10 (60.8 percent) of women workers who are unemployed. The situation is worse for unmarried women who head families, most of whom are single mothers, who now have an unemployment rate of 12.6 percent, 2.4 percentage points above the national average.

Unmarried women and men have both seen a sharper rise in unemployment over the past year, compared to their married counterparts. Between October 2008 and October 2009, the increase in the unemployment rate of unmarried women (3.6 percentage points) was more than twice the increase of their married counterparts (1.7 percentage points). Unmarried women with families had a 4.1 percentage-point increase over the last year. These trends are reflected among men, too: Unmarried men’s unemployment rate rose 5.0 percentage points over the last year, to 14.1 percent in October; married men’s rose 3.0 percentage points to 6.5 percent.

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). All of these groups face higher-than-average unemployment. For example, in October 15.0 percent of African-American unmarried women were unemployed, as were 11.1 percent of unmarried Hispanic women, both far above the national average unemployment rate, compared to 9.2 percent of white unmarried women (see figure below). Since African-American women are more likely than white women to be unmarried, this pushes the overall unemployment rate for unmarried women upward.

Age is also a factor. A high proportion of unmarried women are young, and young workers have higher unemployment than middle-age and older workers. Of unmarried women workers, 43.9 percent are ages 20 to 34 (14 million), and they had a 12.2 percent unemployment rate in October. By comparison, 21.9 percent of married women workers (8 million) are ages 20 to 34, and they had a 7.6 percent unemployment rate last month.

The challenges finding a job are evident in the sharp increases in workers who report that they are unemployed and would like a job, but have given up searching because they have become “discouraged.” Over the past year, the number of unmarried women workers who are discouraged has nearly doubled—up 85 percent to 179,000—while the number of married women workers who report being discouraged has risen by 174 percent, up to 118,000.

With the exception of widowed women, unmarried women are more likely to participate in the labor force than are married women. Only one in five (19.2 percent) widows participated in the labor force in October 2009, while 70.8 percent of never-married, divorced, and separated women combined and 68.7 percent of unmarried women with families were in the labor force. The share of married women in the labor force, by comparison, was 61.2 percent last month. These data indicate that, excepting widows, unmarried women continue to be more reliant on their own earnings than married women, despite the historically high numbers of married women who are now workers and breadwinners for their families.

Because losing a job often means losing one’s health insurance, an additional 276,000 children of single mothers have lost health insurance they received through their mother’s employer-sponsored plan. Foreclosures have risen for single women, and homeless shelters have seen an increase in the number of families, mostly headed by women. Poverty rates for unmarried women are usually much higher than for married women (20.8 percent versus 6.2 percent of women 18 and over in 2008, the most recent data available), and poverty rates are likely even higher in 2009 due to growing unemployment.

Unmarried women also have few financial resources: They usually rely on a single income and, as women earn, on average, only 77 cents for every dollar a man makes. Their lower household incomes and less savings compared to married couples makes it harder to prepare for a financial emergency like unemployment.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act’s inclusion of additional unemployment compensation and subsidies for the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act, or COBRA premiums that provide subsidies to laid-off workers to pay for their health insurance premiums is extremely important. While Congress has provided additional weeks of benefits to the long-term unemployed, they will also need to act by the end of December to ensure that all long-term unemployed workers are able to receive much-needed extended unemployment benefits and subsidies to help afford health insurance premiums. Given how costly health insurance is for single unemployed women, Congress should also consider allowing states to extend Medicaid to the unemployed.

Data source: All employment and unemployment data by marital status are from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Table 12: Employment status of the civilian noninstitutional population by marital status, sex, age, race, and Hispanic or Latino ethnicity,” October 2008 and October 2009 (unpublished).

Liz Weiss is a Policy Analyst with the Center for American Progress. She focuses on the economic security of unmarried women. Heather Boushey is a Senior Economist with the Center for American Progress.