“Breadwinner” Moms in Virginia

“A record 40% of all households with children under the age of 18 include mothers who are either the sole or primary source of income for the family.” – Executive Summary, “Breadwinner Moms”

“Breadwinner Moms,” a recently released report from Pew Social & Demographic Trends, suggests, on its face, that gender equality in the labor force is perhaps closer than advocates for women’s rights would have us believe. The authors note that, as of 2011, “a record 40%” of households with children had mom as the primary breadwinner, up from 11% in 1960. There are a number of large-scale social and economic issues reflected in these seemingly straightforward numbers—changing household structures and trends in family formation; increasing female participation in higher education and the labor force; rising costs of living and stagnant wage growth that necessitate multiple earners within a family; and the lingering effects of the recession on labor market participation.

Moving beyond the initial “40%” number shows that there are really two populations being discussed: (1) single mother families and (2) married couple families in which the wife earns more than her husband. Using the term “breadwinner” with respect to women in single-mother families belies the economic realities of their situation. Single moms are the only potential earners in the family; many earn low (or no) wages and rely on public assistance to get by. This topic will be explored in greater depth in Virginia by Annie in our next blog post.

Discussions of the second population, married couples with “breadwinning” wives, gloss over problematic economic issues underpinning this shift, such as the disproportionate impact of the recession in male-dominated industries like construction and manufacturing. While two earner families may create new challenges at home, such as negotiating child care and housework, and yield divergent opinions on what’s best for children, they also reflect a basic economic reality for many American families: one income is not enough. I was also troubled by the use of the term “breadwinner”—traditionally used to describe a household in which a single earner is able to support the entire family unit—to describe two earner households in which one partner is earning more than the other. Moreover, the wage gap between husbands and wives was never made clear; how much more are these “breadwinning” moms actually earning compared to their husbands? Let’s take a quick look at the 2011 American Community Survey data for Virginia.

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Food Stamp Participation by State, 1990-2013

The sluggish economic recovery and changes to participation guidelines have led to a steady increase in the number of individuals relying on food stamps, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). In January 2013, 47.3 million Americans, or 15% of the total population, received food stamps (Nearly 50 million Americans are living in poverty, according to recent Census Bureau estimates, but individuals and families slightly above the poverty line are eligible for SNAP as well).

The Wall Street Journal recently released a fantastic interactive graphic that shows trends in monthly food stamp participation, by state, from 1990 through 2013. Most states follow the overall national trend: participation rises in the mid-1990s, gradually declines through the boom years of the late 1990s and early 2000s, flattens slightly through the 2000s, and then sharply increases following 2008.

US Food Stamp Participation, 1990-2013

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A trend is your friend: the latest unemployment and poverty numbers

In this presidential election year, the public seems particularly focused on the monthly unemployment statistics gathered by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). By now I am sure we all know how it works:

If the numbers are bad:

The Republicans tout the numbers as proof that Obama is destroying the economy, and Democrats make an attempt to assure everyone that one month’s numbers don’t mean anything.

If the numbers are good:

The Democrats tout the numbers as proof that Obama is improving the economy, and Republicans make an attempt to assure everyone that one month’s numbers don’t mean anything.

Last month’s unemployment rate dropped to 7.8% from 8.1% in August. Is this drop extraordinary? No. Will the unemployment rate continue to drop? Maybe. Is this a left-wing conspiracy to make Obama look good in the last few months of the campaign? Absolutely not. Let me explain…

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Update: First derivative Virginians

Quinnipiac University released its latest poll of Virginia’s registered voters and the news is not good for Obama.  Since 2011, Obama has led Romney in all trial heat match-ups that Quinnipiac released for the commonwealth, sometimes with leads well outside of polls’ margins of error.  This month’s release, however, shows that Romney has closed the gap with Obama and is tied with him 44 – 44 in a hypothetical match-up.

Quinnipiac Poll of Virginia Registered Voters:

If the election for President were being held today, and the candidates were Barack Obama the Democrat and Mitt Romney the Republican, for whom would you vote?

  July 2012 June 2012 March 2012 Feb. 2012
Obama 44% 47% 50%  47%
Romney 44% 42% 42%  43%

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Employment is up, wages are down

Employment rose nationwide in 2011, but the average weekly wage fell 1.7 percent according to data just released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Only five periods have seen declining wages since the series began in 1978 and fourth Quarter 2010-2011 is the only period to have seen declining wages occur with rising employment.

Virginia’s twelve largest localities, the only ones covered in this report, mirror the national trend. All twelve experienced employment growth, and all but one, Alexandria City, simultaneously experienced wage declines. We need to wait for more details on industry and occupational employment patterns in order to work out just why employment has risen without also driving up wages. And we need employment data for a few more quarters to see whether this divergence of employment and wages is a blip or the beginning of a trend.

Employment and Wage Change, Virginia’s largest Localities, 2010-2011

Percent Change
Average Weekly Wage Wages
4th Quarter 2011 4th Quarter 2010-11
Arlington, VA 0.3 $1,591 -5
Chesterfield, VA. 1.6 $852 -2.5
Fairfax, VA 1.7 $1,519 -1.5
Henrico, VA 1 $939 -2
Loudoun, VA 2.5 $1,136 -5
Prince William, VA. 3.2 $848 -2.8
Alexandria City, VA 0.6 $1,434 0.4
Chesapeake City, VA 0.2 $751 -0.7
Newport News City, VA 1.9 $876 -1.7
Norfolk City, VA. 0.8 $933 -2.6
Richmond City, VA 1.6 $1,027 -3.3
Virginia Beach City, VA 0.5 $763 -0.8

Source: US Bureau of Labor Statistics, County Employment and Wages Summary

Student loans and social benefits are not the worst problem

I’m on the opposite end of the labor force spectrum from Dustin — hurtling towards retirement instead of just starting out — but the issue he described in his recent post is important for me too, as it should be for everyone. If young people are not able to gain a strong foothold in society, the long term consequences could be serious both for them and for the rest of us who depend on a strong young workforce. Hoarding social benefits the way Smaug hoarded gold is unlikely to work any better for us than it did for him. Continue reading

Computers Really Are Taking Our Jobs

UNIVAC 1, 1951

UNIVAC 1. The first commerical computer, delivered to the U.S. Census Bureau in 1951

The last great recession began in December 2007 and officially ended in June 2009. But it doesn’t feel like it’s over. Even though productivity and in many cases corporate profits have rebounded, unemployment and underemployment remain high. We have seen this pattern after each recession since the 1990s and it has been dubbed “jobless recovery.”

There are many arguments about why unemployment remains so stubbornly high. Some explain that because the economy is weak employers are afraid to grow and reluctant to hire. Others have argued that the economy is facing stagnation and a failure of innovation, especially relative to booming economies in Asia and India. For educators, the “skills gap” explanation has been the most pertinent. This posits that employers now require different, generally higher skill levels from their workers and education is not providing what is needed. Consequently too many people are simply unprepared for work in the 21st Century.

A new book, Race Against the Machine, by MIT Sloan School of Business professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee puts an additional explanation in very clear and accessible terms. It’s not simply that we’re afraid to grow, or stagnating, or even unskilled. Instead, they argue, we’re out of work because, as we have feared for some time, computers really are taking our jobs, and they’re getting better at it every year. Computers are faster and cheaper than people at repetitive tasks, like filing documents, and building things on an assembly line. And as they get more powerful, they can take on more sophisticated repetitive tasks like reading X-rays, analyzing legal documents, and geocoding address data. And equally, if not more important, computerization allows for the reorganization of tasks in a way that eliminates the need for many jobs. Internet shoppers don’t need store clerks; Google searchers don’t need librarians; and Facebook friends don’t need letter carriers. Continue reading

Update: Obama pulling ahead in Virginia?

After last month’s Quinnipiac poll release for Virginia, I looked at whether there was a relationship between the improved job numbers (as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)) and Obama’s recent job approval ratings in the commonwealth.  This month, the BLS updated and revised all of its monthly unemployment numbers and Quinnipiac came out with a new poll of registered voters.  The new data still show a close relationship between unemployment rates and job approval in Virginia, but perhaps that relationship is a little more complex than one might think.

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