Vulnerable Populations Still Struggling in Improving Economy

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Vulnerable Populations Still Struggling in Improving Economy

Emily Crockett

The unemployment rate in September was the lowest it has been in six years, according to new data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but wages still aren’t going up and some vulnerable populations still have high unemployment rates.

The unemployment rate in September was the lowest it has been in six years, according to new data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but wages aren’t rising and some vulnerable populations still have high unemployment rates.

The September jobs report looks like very good news overall. The jobless rate fell below 6 percent for the first time since the recession that began in 2008. The economy added 248,000 jobs, more than the 215,000 jobs economists had expected, and it turns out that August’s disappointing numbers were better than previously thought.   

Policy analysts say that while the report shows improvement, there are still areas of concern.

One worrisome number is the labor force participation rate, which is the lowest it’s been since 1978. The official unemployment rate only includes people who are out of work but are actively looking for a new job, but the labor force participation rate includes people who might want a job but have given up looking for one.

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An Economic Policy Institute analysis estimates that if these “missing workers” were included, the unemployment rate would actually be about 9.6 percent. We haven’t seen an official unemployment rate that high since August 2009, when the country was just starting to emerge from a catastrophic recession. 

And even the official unemployment rates remain much too high for both men and women of color, Kate Gallagher-Robbins, senior policy analyst at the National Women’s Law Center, told Rewire.

The unemployment rates from August to September went down about a full percentage point for African-American women (down from 10.6 to 9.6 percent), Hispanic women (down from 8.1 to 7.2 percent) and Hispanic men (down from 5.9 to 4.8 percent), and single mothers (down from 9.3 to 8.3 percent).

While that’s good news, most of those unemployment rates are still much higher than for the population at large, and even as high as the overall rate during the height of the recession.

“I do worry that as the economy overall recovers, that some policymakers will become complacent and ignore that certain groups are still at what we consider crisis levels,” Gallagher-Robbins said.

The Obama administration and Democrats acknowledged that while the jobs report was good, more needs to be done.

“Even as we take stock of the progress that has been made, too many Americans do not yet feel enough of the benefits,” said Jason Furman, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, said in a statement, pointing to President Obama’s recent remarks at Northwestern University on how to get the economy moving again.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) issued a statement praising the jobs numbers but condemning Republicans in Congress for obstructing policies that would further help middle-class families, and the statement on the jobs report by House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) touted Republican economic policies while not actually mentioning the jobs report.

Another problem is that wages are still stagnant. They didn’t grow at all from August to September, and wage growth over the last year is much lower than it should be.

This is partly because while jobs have been steadily added since the recession, most of those jobs are low-wage and not as secure as the kinds of jobs that were lost. This month, a quarter of job gains were in typically low-wage industries like retail and hospitality.

In a sense, people haven’t regained jobs lost in the recession, but rather traded them for worse ones. And given that women make up about two-thirds of low-wage workers, this hits them especially hard.

“In our work, we hear from people anecdotally that the jobs they’re looking for are just not available,” Gallagher-Robbins said. “And when jobs are available, they often pay low wages and have very difficult schedules for women trying to balance jobs with child care or school.”

Men gained more jobs than women this month, and their unemployment rate has gone down more sharply in the past year—from 7 to 5.3 percent for men and from 6.2 to 5.5 percent for women. That’s to be expected, Gallagher-Robbins said, since men lost more jobs during the recession. Indeed, she said, this month could mark the end of what people have been calling the “mancession.”

Still, more job gains in low-wage industries went to women than men. And that’s just looking at industry overall, not particular jobs; more women end up with the lower-paying jobs in those lower-paying industries.

Women were also hit harder than men by cuts to public-sector jobs. Those cuts, largely the product of adherence to austerity in the wake of 2008’s economic collapse, are one reason this recovery is taking longer than usual.

Both women and men have seen growth in low-wage jobs over the past few years, Gallagher-Robbins said, and a strong recovery will require more and better jobs for both men and women. That means policy choices like raising the minimum wage so that low-wage jobs hurt people’s pocketbooks less, giving low-wage workers more predictable schedules, and providing paid family leave so that low-wage workers can care for their families.

This month’s job report shows that the labor market is “better than it was, but there’s still a long way to go,” Gallagher-Robbins said. “It’s not good for men or women.”