Ellen Bravo

(WOMENSENEWS)–The U.S. economic decline of the past three years has been especially hard on single mothers on the edge of poverty.

It isn’t a fact that claimed the spotlight last Friday, when the U.S. Census Bureau reported that 1.7 million more people fell into poverty in 2002, pushing the official poverty rate to 12.1 percent from 11.7 percent in 2001.

Nor is it a fact that leaps out of the latestofficial unemployment statistics. In fact, with women’s overall joblessness lower than that of men–5.2 percent in August compared with 5.8 percent for men–female workers appear to be riding out the recession slightly better than their male counterparts.

Researchers at the National Women’s Law Center in Washington, D.C., however, have isolated unemployment statistics for female single heads of household and have found them hit considerably harder than women overall.

In August, the unemployment rate for female heads of household was 8.4 percent, up from 7.6 percent a year ago and 6.2 percent in March 2001, according to Joan Entmacher, vice president for family economic security at National Women’s Law Center. Researchers and women’s advocates say the evidence of more unemployed single mothers can be found in their growing numbers in homeless shelters and food-pantry lines. Such options have become the safety net for many amid shrinking public assistance.

Ellen Bravo, director of the Milwaukee-based 9to5 National Association of Working Women, says an increasing number of her association’s members–predominantly low-wage women–are having more difficulty than ever finding jobs.

“These are really hard times for them,” she said. “Women who are trying to get off welfare face more competition for low-wage jobs from people who had been let go from better paying jobs.” Often times, she added, women are not able to work enough hours to qualify for unemployment assistance.

“When you do get a job, you don’t stay on it too long. It is frustrating and you get depressed,” said 9to5 member Julia Perkins. She lost her full-time job as a bus driver two years ago and just a few weeks ago lost a part-time job as a Girl Scout troop leader because of budget cuts.

Since then, she has been cutting her expenses and taking on various part-time jobs to support her four children and herself. She works a few hours each day delivering papers, bringing home about $300 a week. Medicare and food stamps fill in some of the gaps. There won’t be as many new clothes for the kids this year and no school pictures. And, the part-time work does not have benefits.

“That is my main problem,” Perkins said, “I need a job with benefits for me and my family.”

Perkins has not been forced to give up her home. But, she has seen many women in her area moving in with family or friends or into homeless shelters.

Likewise, Bravo says there “is an increased use in pantries and an increase in people who send their kids to live with grandparents, because they just can’t afford it.”

With unemployment at its highest level in almost a decade, competition for low paying jobs is fierce. At the same time, services, such as child care, that have enabled many single mothers to work and seek jobs, are being cut or scaled back.

As a consequence, women are more likely than men to drop out of the labor force. And these numbers do not show up in the official jobless figures because those statistics are based on unemployment insurance claims. (In August, for instance, women accounted for 56 percent of the 5 million people who said they wanted work but who–because they had not recently been in the labor force–were not eligible for benefits.)

Male-Dominated Fields Hit Harder

Looking at the unemployment number released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, men, on the whole, seem harder hit by the economic decline of the past three years because many male-dominated industries–such as manufacturing and construction–are the first hit by an economic slowdown. Women’s employment is more concentrated in white-collar work and service industries–such as healthcare, education and retail–that withstand downturns better.

The economy officially entered recession in March 2001 and has been slow to recover, as demonstrated by the Census Bureau’s higher poverty statistics for 2002.

Many economists expect the economy to grow at a rate of about 4.5 percent in the current quarter, the fastest since the first three months of 2002. Unemployment, however, is still high, at 6.1 percent in August, compared with 4.2 percent at the start of the recession, meaning that 2.8 million more people were out of work this past August than in March 2001.

Although the official statistics show women to be doing slightly better than men, women–especially women earning low wages–are particularly vulnerable to a rise in layoffs, because they are less likely to receive unemployment insurance. That’s because women are more likely than men to drop out of the labor force when they lose their jobs, opting instead to stay home to take care of their house, children or parents. Thus, since they are not actively looking for work–a requirement for unemployment insurance recipients–they will be blocked from benefits and not counted by the unemployment numbers, said Vicky Lovell, study director at the Institute of Women’s Policy Research in Washington, D.C.

Women are also less likely than men to be eligible for unemployment insurance, because often they have not been in the work force long enough or worked in part-time jobs. This is especially true for women who have recently stopped receiving federal assistance to poor families, known as TANF.

When women do qualify for unemployment insurance, their benefits are often less than men’s, because their wages are also typically lower. This is particularly true for female heads of household, concentrated in the lowest paying jobs that are less likely to have severance packages. Such women will also be less likely to have savings or wealthy parents to help cushion a job loss, said Anna Wadia, director of programs at the Ms. Foundation in New York. Women, she said, account for 48 percent of the labor force and 59 percent of workers making less than $8 per hour.

Work Barriers for Single Mothers

Single mothers have also typically had a harder time entering the work force than men. Especially now, in a tight labor market, employers have more than enough workers from which to choose.

“Employers may feel it is more difficult to employ these women,” said Entmacher, “because they have child care responsibilities that may get in the way of their work.”

In addition, the services that make it possible for these women to work, such as child care, are less available as states and federal government agencies cut budgets. “Child care is a difficult issue to overcome when looking for a job,” said Lovell. “It is hard to look for a job when you don’t have child care, but it is hard to pay for this child care when you don’t have a job.”

It is precisely the lack of alternatives that is making this decline so much harder for many women. “What happens when a women loses a job? . . . It really gets to the question of the safety net,” said Wadia.

Changes in federal welfare law in 1996 made it harder to qualify for assistance and put time limits on benefits. One segment of women really feeling the pinch are those former welfare recipients who got jobs and lost them. They don’t have the work history to collect unemployment, and they are no longer eligible for federal assistance.

“So many people who have lost jobs may be caught with no safety net at all,” said Entmacher. “This is the first time” since the changes in federal welfare laws, she said, that “we have had an economic situation like this.”

Marianne Sullivan is a New York-based freelance writer who writes frequently on finance and economics.

For more information:

9to5, National Association of Working Women:

Institute for Women’s Policy Research: