Naomi Cahn: The Womancession

After the crash, the downturn was dubbed a “mancession.” As the meme continues to circulate, the Roosevelt Institute’s New Deal 2.0 blog asked leading thinkers to help sort fact from fiction. Are men suffering more than women in a weak economy? Is Washington doing enough to address female unemployment? How do we ensure a jobs agenda that’s fair and equitable? In the second part of an ongoing series, “The Myth of the Mancession? Women & the Jobs Crisis“, Naomi Cahn and June Carbone explain the challenges women face in the wake of new job cuts and changing family dynamics.

It’s time we faced up to the consequences of growing income inequality. In the Great Recession, the top income earners have recovered, while the poor have gotten poorer. And the disparities in family life make things even worse. The average family requires two incomes to get by. In a recession, two incomes may cushion the effects of a layoff. Yet, increasingly, the ability to manage marriage and wage-earning has become a marker of class.

First, let’s look at the employment numbers. The Great Recession disproportionately affected construction and manufacturing, and therefore it disproportionately affected men. Between December 2007 and October 2009, non-farm jobs dropped by 5.8 million for men, but only 2.5 million for women. The result produced the largest unemployment gap between men and women in the post-war era.

Second, think about what may happen next. In September of this year, local governments laid off workers at the fastest rate in thirty almost years. The layoffs disproportionately affected those involved in education, a field that includes more women than men. Economists predict that without renewal of stimulus spending or greater assistance to the states, more cuts in government employment should be expected next year. It’s clear that a family with two incomes is in a better position to keep some income coming in; a family with one wage-earner is more vulnerable to downturns that affect some sectors more than others.

Third, examine the distribution of two-income families. It used to be that the more education a woman had, the less likely she was to marry, and women’s workforce participation did not vary much with the husband’s income. Today, marriage rates have fallen most dramatically for the least educated, while the most educated have become much less likely to divorce. As a result, the likelihood of raising a child in a two-parent family has become more closely associated with education and class. College grads enjoy divorce and non-marital birth rates that approximate those in the mid-sixties; for those who don’t graduate from college, marriage rates have fallen while divorce and non-marital birth rates continue to rise. In part because of the changes in marriage, poor women’s family income has decreased by almost a third over the past 30 years (28.8%), while professional women’s family income has increased (7.4%).

So what should we do about it? The answers require long term changes.

First, college for everyone is not a panacea, but increased educational and training opportunities should be part of any solution. A larger percentage of the next generation will be raised by single parents and escalating tuition will place higher education beyond the reach of a larger segment of students. Employers should seek ways to work with high schools, colleges and universities to train workers for more specialized skills.

Second, the erosion of the wage structure for less educated men and the increase in family instability for the bottom half of the American population make the least-educated men less attached to the labor market and less attractive as husbands. Comprehensive services that provide job-related skills, beginning with interviewing through maintaining a job, should be addressed to them as well as to women.

Third, dual parent workforce participation requires more family friendly workplaces. While the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 allows eligible workers to take unpaid, job-protected leave to care for a new child or a family member with a serious medical condition, only slightly more than half of all employees work in businesses covered by the law, according to an estimate that the Labor Department published in 2000. Moreover, while federal law protects workers from discrimination based on sex or pregnancy status, it doesn’t explicitly protect against discrimination based on caregiving responsibilities — so some state and local governments have begun to pass laws that do. Researchers at the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law report that the number of lawsuits claiming discrimination based on caregiving responsibilities has increased by almost 400 percent during the past ten years.

Finally, young marriages have become riskier and greater preparation helps for family responsibilities helps. But delay involves a greater commitment to the widespread availability of contraception than we have today. In the late nineties, unintended pregnancies were falling for college grads while they rose for less educated women. There is every reason to believe those trends have gotten worse The 2008 teen birth rates in Arkansas, Mississippi, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas were the highest in the country, with more than 60 births per 1,000 teens. Yet, each of these states emphasizes abstinence be stressed over more effective programs.

American policies that fail to invest in the human capital of the next generation, pointlessly encourage early marriage and childbearing, and perpetuate workplaces ill-equipped to adjust to family needs make workers more vulnerable during recessions.

Naomi Cahn is the John Theodore Fey Research Professor of Law at George Washington University Law School. She is the author of numerous books and law review articles on gender and family law.

June Carbone is the Edward A. Smith/Missouri Chair of Law, the Constitution and Society at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Cahn and Carbone are the co-authors of Red Families v. Blue Families.

Cross-posted from New Deal 2.0.

From The Huffington Post

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