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Unemployment Among Husbands and Wives

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Does it make a difference whether it is the husband or the wife who is unemployed?

Most definitely, says Heather Boushey, feminist economist extraordinaire here in Washington DC. It affects how much money comes into the home, and suggests that action is needed to close the gap between men’s and women’s earnings. Heather’s recent report, Not Working; Unemployment Among Married Couples shows why. I hit the highlights below.

Of all dual earner couples in 2010, 64% have managed to keep both partners in the paid labor force. This number has fallen about 6% since the onset of the Great Recession. As women, and especially mothers, entered the labor market, their income has become an increasingly larger share of total household income, topping off at 47% in 2009. In the typical recession, wives lose jobs more often than husbands. However, the Great Recession has pushed more men into unemployment, so wives’ wages are more often the only wages coming home. This highlights the damage caused by gender-based pay disparity, as more familes are depending solely on the mother’s income, which statistically is only 77% of the father’s. Her income just doesn’t go as far as his. The recession shows that pay discrimination unjustly deprives all family members,not just the wife and mother.

The Great Recession also has placed older workers in a dire situation. Amongst older couples, aged 55 to 64, husbands are 42% more likely than wives to be unemployed. This age group is the least likely to find re-employment, so years without income may be in store. If they do return to the workforce, many will earn significantly less than they did before. Social Security benefits are based on the amont of earnings over a 35 year time period. If the (typically) higher earner is unemployed,or subsequently under-employed, that benefit available when the age of eligibility is reached will be decreased. Wives’ benefits will fall too, because many draw a spousal benefit, calculated on the husbands’ earnings, often bigger than their own, considering their lower wages overall and fewer years of employment, usually due to family caregiving obligations. In addtion to a smaller Social Security check, home values and the stock market have both declined, so savings are way off their maximum value. If the budget is balanced and the deficit reduced by slashing Social Security, older couples will find economic security even more precarious.

So, not only do we have a bad situation on our hands, Congressional action could be making it much, much worse now, later, and throughout the “golden years” of many hardworking people.

‘Til next time,

Your (Wo)Man in Washington

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