Single Women Fend for Themselves in Recession

Single women of color, despite their vital economic contributions as consumers, parents and workers, bear the brunt of the economy's decline.

By Michelle Chen Aug 11, 2010

On the heels of another dismal job report and a flaming national debate over the meaning of marriage, the Center for American Progress and Women’s Voices Women Vote presents a snapshot of the unmarried in today’s economy. It turns out that single women of color, despite their vital economic contributions as consumers, parents and workers, bear the brunt of the economy’s decline and the failed policies that have deepened the recession.

According to the report, unmarried women fare much worse than married couples on nearly every measure of economic well-being, including home ownership (30 percent of unmarried women, 80 percent of married couples), household income and poverty rates.

And during lean times, "Single women have fewer savings to fall back on if they become unemployed or have their earnings cut." The gender wealth gap turns into a yawning chasm when you factor in race, as recently detailed in an earlier report by the Insight Center showing a vast disparity in the median net wealth of women of color compared with white women.

Unmarried status, according to the report, not only means women lack the cushion of an additional household income, but penalizes them on a community level by compounding the racial wealth gap:

Unmarried women of color have even less economic security than their white counterparts. This is a particular concern because women of color are more likely to be unmarried and facing the economic insecurity associated with their marital status. For instance, 68 percent of adult black women are unmarried, as are 47 percent of Hispanic women, compared with 43 percent of white women….

What’s more, women who maintain families–the vast majority of whom are single mothers–have the highest unemployment rate of all women. Fifteen percent of black single mothers were unemployed in 2009, as were 11.6 percent of Hispanic single mothers, compared with 6.6 percent of black and 9.7 percent of Hispanic married women, the ethnic group with the highest unemployment rate for married women. This high unemployment rate for married Hispanic married women results in a smaller gap between the unemployment rates of Hispanic married and unmarried women than for blacks and whites.

Drawing from the experience of the Recovery Act, the report outlines some potential policy solutions that could turn women of color’s financial liabilities into assets. For example, targeted jobs programs that don’t just focus on male-dominated industries like construction, or reforms to welfare-to-work programs that actually move women into real careers instead of dead-end low-wage jobs.It also wouldn’t hurt to revise the tax codes that privilege married heterosexuals and unemployment insurance policies that discriminate against low-income women. And while they’re at it, Congress ought to finally begin dismantling the perverse barriers in the Fair Labor Standards Act that exclude domestic workers, a sector dominated by immigrant women of color.

Mired at the bottom of the racial wealth divide, single women of color need not just a safety net but a ladder: labor policies that respect their autonomy as workers, and social programs that enable them to strike out on their own while ensuring their families have something to lean on.