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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.

Much has been made of the fact that, when examined through the prism of gender, the Great Recession appears to have affected the employment of men far more than that of women. And, taken as a whole, that's true. According to figures released on Friday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for men (age 20 and over) stands at 10 percent, while 7.9 percent of women rank among the unemployed. (When the recession began in December 2007, the unemployment rate among men and women was the same: 4.4 percent.)

But spend some time rummaging among the unemployment statistics, and you'll find a significant group of women struggling mightily against a brutal economic tide: single women with children. They, the breadwinners of their families, are more than twice as likely to be unemployed than married women who have a spouse present. While this has been true for the last ten years (PDF), its effects are amplified in the current economic crisis.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics, in a report released on Friday, showed the unemployment rate for married women at 6.1 percent, while that of single women "who maintain families," in the parlance of the BLS, reached a whopping 11.6 percent -- 68 percent higher than when the recession began. Add to that the fact that women, as a whole, earn only 77 cents for every dollar a man brings home, and you find many single women whose situation has gone from difficult to dire.

Indeed, married members of both sexes did better maintaining employment over the course of 2009, according to the BLS's own annual averages of its Household Data monthly surveys: 12 percent of people who had never married were unemployed by the end of the year; those who were widowed, separated or divorced suffered an unemployment rate of 9.2 percent, while married people (defined as having a spouse "present"), coasted by with a 5.5 percent rate of unemployment.

The effect on the nation's children has yet to be fully understood: 20 percent of all children today grow up in families headed by a single mother.

What is going on here? Are employers picking unmarried mothers over married workers when deciding on who is to be let go, just because they dislike unmarried mothers? Perhaps. But a more probable explanation is found elsewhere: The married and the unmarried differ from each other in ways which directly correlate with unemployment. As Liz Weiss and Heather Boussey write in their November 2009 article:

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)."

To see what all this means, it helps to turn statistics into concrete examples. Instead of wading through the BLS tables as percentages, imagine yourself as the drill-sergeant giving orders to a lineup of 100 individuals of a particular type. You call the unemployed to take a step forward. What happens if the hundred people in front of you are a general representative sample of the civilian U.S. labor force? Roughly ten will step forward, which corresponds to the 9.7 percent unemployment figure given for February 2010.

But what if all 100 standing before you are young people, between the ages of 20 and 24? Your call for the unemployed to step forward will result in 16 "volunteers" (to match the unemployment rate of 16.0 percent for that group). Even if all those younger privates were female, the step-forward call would result in more than 10 responses (to match the female unemployment rate of 13.1 percent for that age group).