international analysis and commentary

Middle-class women in post-recession America: greater responsibility, greater vulnerability


When the Great Recession hit, the term “mancession” was coined in the US to describe the disproportionate amount of unemployment affecting males. By some counts men lost more than twice as many jobs as women (5.3 million compared to 2.1 million) and they’ve had a harder time getting them back.

“In the most recent jobs report women had more than made up the number of jobs lost in the recession while men still have a ways to go,” explains Jeff Hayes, Study Director at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR). From this perspective, it seems like women are faring well in post-Recession America, but Hayes is quick to point out that in the past few years as unemployment has dropped and the market has strengthened, women remain more vulnerable and at greater risk of economic insecurity compared to men. Middle-class women are no exception.

An IWPR/Rockefeller survey, Women and Men Living on the Edge: Economic Insecurity After the Great Recession (2011), which Hayes co-authored, states, “whereas 61% of [working] men report having enough savings to cover two months of earnings if they lost their jobs, only 43% of [working] women would have that much savings.”

This sense of economic vulnerability is clearly related not only to the stubbornness of the crisis, but to a growing economic responsibility for women within the family, coupled with the persisting gender gap in wages and with occupational segregation – both of which hit middle-class working women the hardest.

“I think fear of job loss and less mobility have created a country where there are fewer sole breadwinners,” explains Mary Lynam-Miller, a middle-class mom in O’Fallon, Illinois, who has twin toddlers and two teenage step children. “Most of the families I know do not have a clear breadwinner. Everyone’s income is very important.”

Lynam-Miller, who works in community-based services for seniors and people with disabilities, says she put off going back to college to obtain a Master’s degree due to the growing importance of her salary. Her husband, a federal employee, has faced furloughs and she cannot risk cutting her work hours to spend time studying. “I think the biggest thing I have seen among middle-class women I know is that they have less say in their lifestyle choices. For instance, I know a stay-at-home mom who went back to work. I think a lot of my friends have started saving more money, traveling less, and spending less on their own wants in order to focus on family needs.”

Hayes backs up this anecdote with a wider explanation. “The significance in what is happening today is in how much families rely on women’s earnings to make ends meet,” he says. “While women have always been integral to family economic security, their earnings and access to good jobs matter more than ever to families who are especially economically insecure.” Today “economically insecure” can easily refer to members of the middle class.

Add to this a rise in the number of families that rely only on the earnings of a mother. A May 2013 Pew Research Center analysis of US Census data reports that a record 40% of all households with children under age 18 are headed by mothers who earn either the sole or primary source of income for the family. The share was 11% in 1960.

A November 2012 Pew Research Center report separately found that mothers’ desire to work and how much they wanted to work – likely due to necessity – has changed significantly since before the recession. The share of mothers who wanted to work full time increased from 20% in 2007 to 32% in 2012. Meanwhile, those who did not want to work fell from 29% to 20%.

“Work is certainly different, it is harder than ever to find good contracts and I find myself taking on work that I would have never considered before,” says Jennifer Scott of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a divorced middle-class mother who is the sole provider for herself and her son. “I think it is harder than ever to juggle family and expectations.”

Scott, an artist and teacher, says she finds herself working harder and spending more time looking for work to make ends meet. She adds that the Recession left a lasting impact on middle-class women’s aspirations, “I think educated women have a hard time accepting less than they expected when they went to school. Many of us are the last hired and the first fired, so keeping up with the things that we expected for ourselves is really tough.”

While unemployment remained lower for the more educated during the Recession, the gender gap in earnings remained a challenge, particularly for the middle class. In 2012, the female-to-male earnings ratio was 0.75 among workers with a high school education, compared to 0.71 among workers with a Bachelor’s degree or higher. Add to this the fact that progress on closing the gap has stalled.

A recent IWPR report stated that recent gains in productivity have not been passed on to workers in terms of higher real wages (which would facilitate closing the gap), but that only those at the very top are experiencing substantial gains. “Women’s earnings have become increasingly important to family incomes with the decline in marriage and the growth in single mother and dual earner families,” the report states. “The persistent gender earnings gap and the failure of real earnings to grow for the majority of working women and men expose many families to economic stress.”

This is especially true for working mothers who may experience a second wage gap – a motherhood wage gap. In sociology, the term “motherhood penalty” is used to describe systematic disadvantages in pay and benefits, as well as in growth in professional experience, for working women with children as they are often perceived as less competent and less dependable. This results in a pay gap not only between men and women, but also between non-mothers and mothers – who are more frequently becoming sole-providers and are in general those most in need.

Finally, occupational segregation is also more of an issue for middle-class working women. The Shriver Report’s A Woman’s Nation Pushes Back from the Brink (2014) states, “While women represent a majority of college graduates, they are also more likely to work in poorly paid ‘pink-collar’ service and caregiving occupations that leave them financially insecure. That’s because even though this job sector is among the fastest-growing sectors in the United States, there is a shocking lack of wage increases and benefits in it.”

“Pink-collar” occupations refer primarily to the health services and education sectors which are dominated by middle-class females and have seen strong growth in recent years. However, even within these sectors women face wage discrimination when competing for better pay and positions.

“Men’s rate of job growth within female-dominated industries was proportionally higher than women’s for most of the post-recession recovery, and, of course, women earn less than men even in typically female occupations,” explains Hayes. “In terms of occupational segregation, most of the evidence I see continues to suggest that women (and men) earn less when they work in female-dominated occupations.”

This climate has created an uncharacteristic lack of faith in the future among many middle-class women in the US: the financial crisis, which officially ended almost five years ago, is still not over for many Americans. Economic vulnerability is a fact of life for the middle-class in a post-Recession America that is torn by complex partisanship and widening socio-economic gaps. Women are not only bearing the brunt of this changed society in financial terms, many are sacrificing their personal and professional aspirations as well. Jennifer Scott, for example, says she likes to be mobile and feel like a part of the world. When I asked her what pleasures come with being the breadwinner, she said, “The things I enjoy most are the times when I am alone in my kitchen and the house is quiet.” Ten years ago, she might have had a professionally more ambitious response.