In the last two years, the percentage of U.S. households with working women who have unemployed husbands has increased from 12.1 percent to 15.6 percent, the result of a downturn that is shaking the traditional American family to its core.
● The U.S. unemployment rate in August was 10.1 percent for men and 7.6 percent for women. By mid-year, women held 49.8 percent of the nation’s 132 million jobs, a record for a trend that has been steadily increasing for decades, according to Terry Neese, distinguished fellow at the National Center for Policy Analysis. Some time this fall, labor experts estimate, women will outnumber men in the work force for the first time in U.S. history.
● Households with female breadwinners are having to make do on significantly less income and are often going without health care and other necessities.
● The stresses are taking an emotional toll on many families, and government, employment, counseling and social service agencies are all grappling with how to handle the seismic shift.
“It’s really been quite striking,” said Heather Boushey, a senior economist at the Center for the American Progress, a Washington, D.C., think tank. “Men’s unemployment has risen so much more than women’s in ways we haven’t seen before. You can’t underestimate the enormous transformation that’s happened and is happening in American families.”
Impact of ‘he-cession’
U.S. companies have shed nearly 7 million jobs since the start of the economic downturn in December 2007. Men have lost three of every four of those jobs, prompting some labor market watchers to dub this downturn the “he-cession.”
Half the job losses have occurred in male-dominated fields such as construction and manufacturing. The meltdown on Wall Street and in the housing market delivered another large contingent of men to the unemployment lines. Even if these industries recover, they’re not expected to replace all the jobs they shed.
Georgia labor officials began seeing signs of the job market’s transformation earlier this year, noting more men than women at job fairs and filing for unemployment. By March, men accounted for 58 percent of Georgians receiving unemployment benefits — a complete reversal of the situation at the start of the recession.
“We haven’t seen anything like this,” said Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond. “It’s unique and unprecedented.”
The shift in roles is affecting families of all income levels.
Robert Weishan and Tricia Herold’s combined income of $100,000-plus fell by more than half when Weishan lost his job as a human resources professional at an office furniture company earlier this year. Their family of five lives in the Toco Hills area, where Weishan now stays home with the two youngest children.
“I get up and go to work. They’re going to the park and swimming,” said Herold, who earns $43,000 a year as a recruiting coordinator at Emory University’s career center. “I get a little jealous and cranky sometimes because I feel that should be me.”
It’s not all fun and games for her husband, however. As he makes plans to attend nursing school, he runs the household and shuttles the couple’s three children to school, doctors’ appointments and other activities.
The family adheres to a strict budget, eats more tofu, clips coupons, shops the farmers market more than grocery stores. A $5 box of cereal is a treat indulged in only when there’s a “buy one, get one free” special.
“We’re not able to take our kids to the beach or the zoo or the aquarium or some of the activities that cost money,” Herold said.
Jeff and Dolores Pataky of north Atlanta say they view the shift in their income-earning roles — he lost his job in April, she began working in May — as a “different chapter in their lives.”
“It’s somewhat stressful,” Jeff Pataky said. “We’re dipping into savings.”
But, he added, “We’re not in dire straits or at risk of foreclosure. We were never crazy spenders. We have no kids. People who do have children, I can’t imagine the stress they would be under.”
Surviving on less
While spouses adjust to their new roles, vestiges of the old system are still in place. Women, for instance, still earn on average 77 cents for every $1 men earn. In two-earner families, women still only bring in about 36 cents of every $1 of the family’s income. And most families obtain health insurance through the husband’s job.
“So when husbands lose their jobs, families are left struggling to find ways to pay for health insurance at the same time they are living on [a fraction] of their prior income,” Boushey said.
Many women don’t have any insurance. In Tina Patterson’s case, she can’t afford the coverage her employer offers, $126 a week in premiums just for she and her husband. Their three children are covered by PeachCare, a state insurance program for children.
At the same time, many men have exhausted their unemployment benefits and more are perilously close to running out. In Georgia, men are exhausting their unemployment benefits at a faster rate than women, labor commissioner Thurmond notes.
Consequently, a lot more is riding on the woman’s paycheck.
‘This is a restructuring’
In July, Thurmond decided to issue a report on the recession’s impact on men and ultimately their families.
“This is not [just] a recession,” he said. “This is a restructuring, and we haven’t fully understood the implications associated with this restructuring.”
He believes this recession will affect many men and their families long after it’s over.
While more men are showing up in the unemployment lines, not enough are enrolling in retraining programs, he says. Their absence from such programs, he worries, could lead to “structural unemployment,” a perpetual state of joblessness that occurs when a person’s skills haven’t kept pace with change. That, he says, could mean a permanent reversal of the breadwinner role in some families.
Some labor market experts believe American workers have been steadily marching toward this outcome since women first joined the job market en masse in the early 1970s.
In the past 30 years, more women have taken on the role of provider, while more men have moved into the nurturer role, said Ellen Galinsky, president of Families and Work Institute in Manhattan. “This recession just accelerated — in difficult ways — the rate of change for families.”
That change has led to major discomfort for some men who are still struggling with their new role. While his wife was willing to talk, Weishan declined to be interviewed for this story.
“It’s the elephant in the room that nobody’s talking about. There’s still this male breadwinner history and you have fragile [male] egos,” said Dr. Ira S. Wolfe, a Pennsylvania work force consultant and author of the book “The Perfect Labor Storm 2.0: Workforce Trends That Will Change The Way We Do Business.”
‘It’s made us stronger’
The switch in roles is just the latest adjustment the Pattersons have had to make in the last three years. About a year after Germain Patterson lost his job, the family lost their home due to the subprime mortgage debacle and a subsequent mortgage solution scam. The family also has relied on food stamps to supplement Tina Patterson’s income, which until a month ago had been cut to $22,000. Everyone at her company had to take pay cuts to avoid layoffs.
“It hurts because I can’t make ends meet when my kids need things. It hurts even more to see my husband’s face when he can’t give me [money] on the rent,” she said. “That overall look on his face, I can’t explain it. It almost brings me to tears.”
Despite the challenges, both Atlanta families said their experiences have made them stronger, closer, less materialistic and more appreciative of the little things.
“It’s created a lot more family time and less stress around the house,” Tricia Herold said. “It’s made us look at each other and say, ‘We’re going to have to work harder.’ We kinda came together as a team.”
Tina Patterson says she’s more in tune with her husband’s concerns.
“It’s made us, as a couple, stronger,” Patterson said. “We’re able to communicate better without having too many emotions involved. ... We’d get into arguments. Now I just listen.”
Germain Patterson, who has a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and a master’s degree in public administration, has learned his sense of manhood is not tied to a paycheck or college degree — or to the job rejections he’s gotten from McDonald’s, Wal-Mart and Kroger because he’s over-qualified.
It’s a realization he has come to while mowing lawns, busing tables, washing dishes and cars, moving furniture and stringing cable lines — the kind of odd jobs he’ll continue to do until he finds a more permanent one.
“I just can’t sit around,” he said. He also gained an appreciation for his new role.
“I commend women doing it by themselves. Being at home is a real tough job.”
Consumer Credit Counseling Service of Greater Atlanta 800-251-2227
Georgia Crisis and Access Line 800-715-4225
Check our sources
Center for American Progress is a think tank in Washington, D.C., that develops and proposes policies.
National Center for Policy Analysis is a Dallas-based nonprofit public policy research group established in 1983. Its goal is to develop and promote private alternatives to government regulation and control.
Families and Work Institute in New York is a nonprofit research group that addresses work and family issues.