NEW YORK – They’ve called it the “mancession” – a recession that’s affected men disproportionately because of its brutal impact on male-dominated sectors like construction and manufacturing.
But that term rings hollow to women like Sara Wade, an Illinois schoolteacher who became the sole supporter of two school-age children – possibly for good, she fears – when her ex-husband, a carpenter and contractor, stopped paying child support 15 months ago.
Or to Martha Gonzalez, a divorced mother of three in Texas who had to take a second, part-time job when her work in real estate became scarcer. She lost her benefits, too, and for the first time in her adult working life, has no health insurance.
Or to Angela Grice, single mom of a 3-year-old son, who cobbles together two low-paying, part-time jobs while she tries to get an accounting degree that will lead to some stability for her and her son.
Concerned about women like these, a congressional committee has issued a report, timed for Mother’s Day, outlining the adverse impact the recession has had on working women – especially on mothers, and particularly single moms. Strikingly, the report, by the Joint Economic Committee, finds that whereas during the bulk of the recession job losses were overwhelmingly male, as the economy edged toward recovery the trend began reversing.
“As job losses slowed in the final months of 2009, women continued to lose jobs as men found employment,” says the report, based on the committee’s analysis of unpublished data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Specifically, from October 2009 to March 2010, women lost 22,000 jobs while men gained 260,000, it says. “And April’s strong employment growth showed women gained 86,000 jobs last month, far fewer than the 204,000 jobs gained by men,” it says.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., chair of the committee, noted that the findings were especially dire for single mothers; their unemployment rate went from 8 percent to 13 percent between 2007 and 2009.
“Women are losing more jobs, yet families are more dependent on their earnings,” she said in a telephone interview.
In all, one-third of jobs lost during the Great Recession belonged to women, Maloney notes. That’s striking, she says, because in earlier recessions the percentage was much lower; women accounted for 15 percent of job losses in the 2001 recession, for example.
But even women who’ve been able to hold onto their jobs have found the economic sands shifting beneath them in ways they never anticipated.
Wade, the Illinois schoolteacher, counts herself among the luckier ones. An eigth-grade English teacher in Skokie for 16 years, she’s fortunate to have tenure and seniority. (She thanks her lucky stars she didn’t take an extended break from her career earlier on, as she once contemplated.)
Her husband, whom she divorced in 2004, is a carpenter and contractor, “just the kind of job they mean when the call it a ‘mancession,’ ” she says. But the term seems meaningless because the impact of his job troubles has put her in a risky position she never imagined: the sole source of economic support for their 8-year-old boy and 10-year-old girl.
Wade has had no child support since January 2009 and bought a new home with the help of her family.
“I can’t imagine what I’d be living in if they hadn’t helped me out,” she says. She’s also worried about a potential pay freeze at her school. “It’s scary,” she says. “I’m the sole provider and I could be stuck here at this level.” She reluctantly assumes she’ll have to support her kids through college on her own.
There are many like Wade, and they’re in a precarious position, says her district’s congresswoman, Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill. “If a person like her loses her job, she is in deep trouble,” says Schakowsky, chairwoman of the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues, who also spoke to the AP about the report. “The house will probably follow.”
In earlier times, women served as a buffer during recessions; If the husband lost his job, the wife could serve as a backup provider. The frightening thing for women who are the sole breadwinners is that there’s no backup plan, says fellow Women’s Caucus member Gwen Moore, D-Wis.
“We have no safety net for these women,” says Moore. “Eight million women are the sole breadwinners in their family, and public policy needs to be a little more empathetic to this. Because when a woman loses her job, the whole family falls off a huge cliff.”
Another problem for working women is what the report terms the “part-time penalty,” meaning those in part-time work often earn far less for the same amount of work than their full-time counterparts.
In 2009, 3.3 million women worked part time for economic reasons, the report says, meaning that they didn’t choose it: Either they couldn’t find full-time work, or their hours had been cut from full-time.
Part-time means less money, of course. But it also means other things: More expensive child care per hour (it can be hard to find part-time child care), less seniority at work and fewer benefits, if any.
That’s what Gonzalez, the Brownsville, Texas woman, has learned. Happily working full-time in real estate sales and leasing, with a salary and benefits, she was forced to switch to contract work when her company made cutbacks. She took on a second job, working afternoons and early evenings as a receptionist. She hauled her ex-husband into court to get him to pay back child support.
“I’m making it,” she says, but she currently has no health insurance – at 57, it’s something she hasn’t experienced before. Asked what she would do if something catastrophic happened, she replies: “I don’t want to think about that.”
At only 20, Grice, the single mother in Milwaukee, is just trying to begin her career. As she pursues an accounting degree, she cobbles together two part-time jobs, one in a hair salon and another at a call center.
It’s a teetering house of cards. If her son is sick, she loses wages and may have to choose between paying the rent and paying the phone bill. “My income feels temporary, and the bills feel permanent,” she says.
Before the recession, Grice could count on her father for support. But he lost his job at a factory in June, and her parents moved to Texas, meaning she could no longer live with them.
Is it a man’s recession? Grice doesn’t think so. “A lot of women out there don’t have help from men in taking care of their kids,” she says. “This is a mother’s recession, too.”