In the early days of the pandemic, the unemployment rate reached close to 15% , and the number of families that had at least one unemployed person doubled, to almost 10%. Those unemployment rates vary by race and gender: Black and Hispanic families were more likely to have one unemployed person than white or Asian families, and, several months into the pandemic, the US Census reported that women were more than twice as likely as men not to be working because of child care issues.
These statistics suggest profound impacts on the family. Enter sociologist Sarah Damaske’s new book, The Tolls of Uncertainty: How Privilege and the Guilt Gap Shape Unemployment in America (2021). The Tolls of Uncertainty explores the intersections between unemployment and family obligation through interviews with 100 people in urban and rural Pennsylvania. Damaske debunks various myths about the unemployed, such as that they are lazy or clearly differ from the employed, and shows that although men may face expectations to be the breadwinners, ”women appear to bear much higher levels of guilt and shame for losing their jobs.” (P. 14.) And the book proposes policies that support not just the unemployed but also their families.
The story of unemployment unfolds in the book’s three major sections, the first on losing a job, the second on the consequences, and the final section on the struggles people face in returning to work. Damaske began her research in 2012, just after the Great Recession, but during a time of economic growth. Although situated during a particular time period, the book offers enduring lessons about unemployment and the family, regardless of the national economic picture – and, as Damaske explained in a May 2021 New York Times article, the pandemic provides yet another example of how job loss affects men and women differently.
As a sociological account, the book provides rich detail on what it means to be unemployed in America. As she has described in other research, the patterns Damaske found were that: “Middle-class women were most likely to begin an immediate and deliberate job search, middle-class men were most likely to take time to attempt to return to work, working-class men were most likely to report an urgent search characterized by their willingness to take “any job,” and working-class women were most likely to report a diverted search, in which their job search was either delayed or stopped.”
Although the book focuses on the effect of unemployment, family and gender role responsibilities pervade every chapter. Here’s just one of the stories Damaske tells. Although Tamara did not finish high school, she later earned a GED and then – understanding that fast-food jobs would lead to a dead end – enrolled in a program to earn her nursing degree. Her son’s father provided the necessary childcare so she could pursue her studies. During the second semester, however, her son’s father left them, and she was unable to find childcare, so she was forced to quit the program. After finishing a certificate program relating to medical records and finding jobs that paid scarcely above the minimum wage, and following even more efforts at education, Tamara and Damaske spoke after Tamara’s most recent job loss, when she had been fired because she’d had to leave work to take care of her son’s medical emergency. (Pp. 53-54.)
And that story is not even in the chapter on The Guilt Gap and the Second Shift (P.126), the sole chapter explicitly focused on the home. (By “guilt gap,” she means that women had higher amounts of “self-blame” for their unemployment and compensated for that guilt (P. 10) by privileging their family’s needs over their own (P. 109)). In that chapter, Damaske contrasts how men and women handle household responsibilities when they become unemployed. Damaske distinguishes between “routine” jobs, such as cooking, and “nonroutine” chores, such as car maintenance. The pattern she found is not surprising: virtually all of the women and “about half of the men increased the number of routine chores they did at home. But men’s routine chores increased just a bit; they were now ‘helping out’ a little more.” (P. 118) Such an unequal division is not, Damaske notes, what most people claim they want, but women who were unemployed compensated for not working by doing significantly more routine household work – men did “a bit” more. (Pp. 128, 131.)
The major class difference she found was that, notwithstanding unemployment, middle-class women kept their children in day care, while working-class women could not; consequently, upon unemployment, working-class women additionally “shouldered almost all the childcare in their households.” (P. 149.) Damaske provides additional class lessons, showing that unemployment offers a microcosm of how disadvantages accumulate; the white, middle-class men in her study were more likely to receive severance pay, have savings, and take advantage of “their gendered ability to prioritize their job search over tasks at home” as well as in their supportive networks. (P. 213.)
Beyond portraying the effects of unemployment, the book proposes changes to how the government approaches unemployment. The class and gender lessons provide critical guideposts. The first policy change is transparency, ensuring that those who lose a job know the benefits for which they qualify. Damaske also recommends complete wage replacement for those who earned the minimum wage, noting the importance of those wages to the former worker’s family, as well as to the former worker, who is not, then, forced back to work too quickly.
The two proposals explicitly focused on the family are expanded health care and childcare credits. In arguing for increased government support, she recommends that high quality childcare – that is also affordable – be expanded and provided even after a job loss; indeed, such child care along with parental leave results in women earning more when they are able to work. (P. 222.) That recommendation is, of course, in line with President Biden’s national care infrastructure plan; the child care tax credit is expected to cut child poverty almost in half and will have the other benefits that Damaske identifies.
While the book provides significant insights into families, gender, and unemployment, it does have limitations. Damaske recruited participants through the Pennsylvania CareerLink Center (anyone deemed eligible for unemployment must attend a meeting at the Center that focuses on how to get a new job (Pp. 21-22)): this is not a national sample. Moreover, as she notes, her sample is less racially diverse than the national population. (P. 244.) And, of course, it is difficult to generalize based on 100 participants; Damaske supplements her research with that of other scholars ranging from Aliya Rao to Daniel Carlson to Amanda Miller to Kathryn Edin, all of whom have engaged in important and complementary work on the family.
Ultimately, Damaske shows that unemployment’s impact on the family is shaped by a person’s gender and class, and that changing how we approach unemployment will have a profound impact on the family and gender roles.