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Men May Have It Bad, But Unemployment Statistics Obscure the Hit Taken By Single Moms

Break down today's unemployment stats, and it looks like women are faring much better than men in the great recession. That is, unless they're single and raising kids.

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Now let's look at education and unemployment. Let's make two groups of 100 privates each. The first group consists of those with less than a high school diploma, the second of those with at least a bachelor's degree. Now yell for the unemployed in both groups to step forward, hut, hut. What's the result? Sixteen from the first group step forward (15.6 percent), and five from the second group (5.0 percent).

The point of this silly exercise is to remind us that not all groups in the labor force suffer the same danger of unemployment. It also brings home the reason why the highly educated might not observe the great misery unemployment causes: Unemployment is concentrated among the less educated workers, and those workers mostly live in their own barracks, so to say. At present, the unemployment rate among people with college degrees is a mere 5.0 percent, compared with 15.6 percent for those who did not graduate high school. Some 10 percent of. people who have a high school diploma, but no education beyond that, find themselves unemployed.

Unemployment is also higher among major groups of people of color; this is the case even during good economic times. In February, 15.8 percent of African Americans, 12.4 percent of Latinos, 8.8 percent of whites and 8.4 percent of Asians were unemployed in the sense of the most common official definition. While men have a higher unemployment rate than women (10.0 percent vs. 8.0 percent) -- the traditionally male industries construction and manufacturing have been hit especially hard -- the rates for African American women and Latinas (12.1 percent and 11.3 percent, respectively) are still higher than the rate for white men (9.0 percent).

All these examples are simple snapshots of some groups which suffer from greater-than-average rates of unemployment. Unmarried women with children are more likely to be found in all those group pictures than married women because they are younger, less educated and more racially and ethnically diverse. Even if they faced no additional workplace discrimination aimed at their marital/maternal status, these factors place them at a higher risk of joblessness than other women.

That higher risk affects not only the single mothers themselves, but many of America's children. Having two adults capable of earning wages -- or at least of looking for jobs -- makes a big difference for the financial well-being of a family. Families headed by a single parent don't have that private safety-net. (This is true not only for families headed by an unmarried mother, but also for those headed by an unmarried father. Unfortunately, the BLS statistics don't provide information of the latter group.) With one-fifth of all children growing up in families headed by a single mother, and an estimated additional 5 percent in families headed by a single father, one in four of America's children are therefore affected by what happens to single-parent families.

In families such as this, the loss of a parent's job often sets off a cascade of disaster. When the sole breadwinner of a family loses her or his job, the family may also lose health insurance and housing. Poverty rates among all families headed by unmarried mothers (including those not in the labor force) are high. One in three (PDF) of these families lives in poverty. In 2008 (PDF), 43.5 percent of children in single mother families were counted as poor, compared to 9.9 percent of children living in married-couple families. The poverty rates were especially high for families headed by an African-American woman or by a Latina.

Poor families are poor. This means that they don't have savings to tide them over a prolonged bout of unemployment. If a poor single mother with children loses her job, what are her alternatives? She could always go on welfare, right?