The employment numbers released in January suggested that 2011 ended on an up note. The unemployment rate had dropped to 8.5 percent, the lowest it had been since February 2009. The year-end number was down a little over one-half of a percent since August. Other indicators were also positive, with the number of part-time workers who would rather be working full time down 371,000 and the number who were not looking for work because they thought nothing was available down a similar amount.
But does this mean we are back to where we were in 2009? That depends on what measure you use. The unemployment rate is just one way of measuring the state of the labor market. Another is the employment-to-population ratio (E/P), which measures the proportion of the adult population that has a job. Unlike the unemployment rate, it isn’t dependent on who is actually looking for work. By this measure, we are not back to early 2009. In February 2009, just over 60 percent of the population had jobs, a slightly larger proportion than the 58.5 percent who held jobs in December 2011.
The picture gets more complicated when you look at things by race and gender. For whites, the unemployment rate is back to where it was in 2009. Among African Americans, the unemployment rate was 15.8 in December 2011, a significant 2 percentage points above the rate in February 2009. And the proportion of the African American population with jobs was just over 52 percent, slightly less than the 54.4 percent with jobs in early 2009.
While we still have a long way to go to dig out of the recession, the declining unemployment rate is not a false signal. Over the last five months of 2011, the economy generated enough new jobs to employ one million additional workers. But who is getting these jobs? Close examination of the data for the last half of 2011 suggests that this is a “man’s” recovery, that is, men are benefiting more from the expansion than women are. That would make sense since unemployment went up more for men than it did for women. But for African Americans, it seems that men are gaining jobs while women are losing them.
Between August and December, the unemployment rate for African American men declined from 18 percent to 15.7 percent, enough for the ratio of black male to white male unemployment to drop from 2.3 to 2.2. This decline in unemployment is not just because fewer people were looking for work. Well over 200,000 African American men had jobs in December who didn’t have them in August. But on the other side, the statistics say that about 60,000 fewer African American women had jobs in December than in August. Their unemployment rate increased from 13.4 percent to 13.9 percent. The situation among whites is not quite as stark, but the trends are similar, with white men gaining and white women more or less standing still.
Seasonally Adjusted Unemployment Rates by Race and Gender, 2009-2011
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey
This gap partly can be explained by differences in the types of jobs men and women hold. The areas of expansion include sectors where men dominate, like warehousing and transportation jobs. On the other hand, government jobs, which are more likely to be women’s jobs, declined somewhat at the end of 2011.
It is not clear whether this trend will continue, though cash-strapped state and local governments are not likely to be adding jobs soon. Most households, whether headed by a married couple or a woman alone, need the woman’s paycheck to make ends meet. So families are not likely to think the recovery is complete until both men and women who want to work have jobs.