The Times Finds Dubious Female "Victims" of "Unfriendly" Economy

Gloomy Gus economic reporter Louis Uchitelle devotes a lead story to women "victims" of the economy - but are they really that bad off?

Economics reporter Louis Uchitelle favors a doubling of the minimum wage, mocks supply-side economics, and can find the gloomy side of any set of economic figures. So Tuesday's lead story, "Women Are Now Equal As Victims Of Poor Economy," was pretty much inevitable.

Across the country, women in their prime earning years, struggling with an unfriendly economy, are retreating from the work force, either permanently or for long stretches.

They had piled into jobs in growing numbers since the 1960s. But that stopped happening this decade, and as the nearly seven-year-old recovery gives way to hard times, the retreat is likely to accelerate.

Indeed, for the first time since the women's movement came to life, an economic recovery has come and gone, and the percentage of women at work has fallen, not risen, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports. In each of the seven previous recoveries since 1960, the recovery ended with a greater percentage of women at work than when it began.

Uchitelle focuses on three women who've left the workforce (although only one of whom, Tootie Samson, was actually fired, and even she could find work at lower pay).

Hard times in manufacturing certainly sidelined Tootie Samson of Baxter, Iowa. Nine months after she lost her job on a factory assembly line, Ms. Samson, 48, is still not working. She could be. Jobs that pay $8 or $9 an hour are easy enough to land, she says. But like the men with whom she worked at the Maytag washing machine factory, now closed, near her home, she resists going back to work at less than half her old wage.

Ms. Samson knows she will have to get another job at some point. She and her husband still have a teenage daughter to put through college, and his income as a truck driver is not enough. So Ms. Samson, now receiving unemployment benefits, is going to college full time - leaving the work force for more than two years - hoping that a bachelor's degree will enable her to earn at least her old wage of $20 an hour.

But Uchitelle's numbers aren't really all that scary, as even he seems to realize:

The proportion of women holding jobs in their prime working years, 25 to 54, peaked at 74.9 percent in early 2000 as the technology investment bubble was about to burst. Eight years later, in June, it was 72.7 percent, a seemingly small decline, but those 2.2 percentage points erase more than 12 years of gains for women. Four million more in their prime years would be employed today if the old pattern had prevailed through the expansion now ending.

Uchitelle cited statistics on pay from the left-wing Economic Policy Institute without noting the group's ideological slant.

Eventually hereturned to Samson's story -and it turns out it's not quite as sad as first portrayed. Turns out she has an 18-month cushion of school before she feels the need to look for work again:

Ms. Samson, the former Maytag worker, says she can afford not to work because she qualified under the terms of the plant closing for two years of unemployment benefits as long as she is a full-time student. She lost health insurance but shifted to her husband's policy.

His $40,000 income as a truck driver and her $360 a week in jobless benefits gets them by while she takes an accelerated program at a William Penn University campus near her home. Graduation is scheduled for January 2010.

"If I were a single parent or did not have benefits," Ms. Samson said, "I would have had to find a job. I could not have gone back to school to get my degree and the promise it holds of a better job."

That for Ms. Samson is a good reason to drop out. Just working, which she has done nearly all of her adult life, is unappealing, she says. Even interior design, for which she once earned an associate's degree, does not excite her anymore, she says, mainly because people can no longer afford to fix up their homes.

Sounds like Uchitelle's main "victim," Ms. Samson, isn't in all that sad a shape.