Real Unemployment Rate Numbers Tell Only Half the Story

Job numbers released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) just two days after the first of three presidential debates proved a challenge to the Republican claim made by Mitt Romney that Obama has not done enough to improve unemployment. Unemployment figures fell to 7.8% with 114,000 jobs added to the U.S. economy in September. It is the lowest unemployment rate since Obama became president of the United States, according to a speech made at a campaign rally in Virginia on the same day.

However, these numbers do not highlight the fact that a majority of the jobs added to the U.S. economy are low-wage jobs replacing mid-wage jobs lost during the crisis. In September, a report from the National Employment Law Project showed that many of the jobs that pay between $13.84 and $21.13 an hour have been replaced with jobs that pay between $7.69 and $13.83 an hour.

The questions that have not been asked of both presidential candidates are about the creation of good, secure jobs which ensure a living wage and access to health care. The U.S. economy cannot be sustained on a foundation of low-wage workers who live on the brink of poverty. What has also been left out of the economic debate is the impact that an economic recovery plan based on low-wage job gains have on people of color and women.

The unemployment rate in the BLS October 5 report, for example, notes that unemployment rates for teenagers, blacks, and Hispanics saw little change. And while the National Women’s Law Center happily announced that women’s unemployment “hits a three and a half year low,” it is still no guarantee that women are being hired for jobs that pay a living wage.

The same report from the National Employment Law Project further found that the food services, retail, and employment services industries, industries in which women usually hold jobs, accounted for 43% of the jobs gains in September. Additionally, BLS projections for the U.S. labor market predicted an 81% expected growth in home health care services, another industry which is disproportionately female, between 2010 and 2020.

According to a survey of domestic workers in the San Francisco Bay Area, domestic workers are overwhelmingly women (98%), particularly Latina women (94%). Nearly all of them (99%) were born outside of the U.S. The survey also pointed out that two thirds of domestic workers (67%) earn wages below the poverty line while almost all (95%) employers do not provide health insurance.

Despite these numbers, Governor Jerry Brown of California decided to veto legislation that would ensure minimum wage, safety protections, and health care for domestic workers.

In the hospitality and leisure industry, female hotel workers were 50% more likely to be injured by men, according to a study published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine. Injury rates for ethnic minority workers were also significantly higher than their white counterparts.

BLS projections also predict some 5.1 million job openings in the food service industry between 2010 and 2020. This 2011 report found that workers of color in the industry were usually paid less, have less access to health insurance coverage provided by employers, and were less represented at the management level of the food industry.

These figures are evidence that employment carried out by women and people of color continues to be undervalued and subject to gross exploitation. The absence of any discussion about creating good and secure jobs for all Americans in the presidential campaigns is worrying.

In this respect, both Romney and Obama are not very different when it comes to the issues of living wage, rights protection, and health care coverage in the American workforce. Democratic Governor Jerry Brown’s veto of legislation that would improve the working conditions of domestic workers immediately highlights the lack of initiative on the part of the present administration and presidential campaigns.

We should start thinking not just about creating any jobs, but creating jobs that will pay a living wage and that will allow more people to access health care and education.

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Jia Hui Lee

Student of politics, gender, and social justice. But mostly of life. Malaysian-born but peripatetic.

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