Unemployment is killing America’s economically vulnerable women early

Americans are living longer than ever but average lifespan of white, female high school drop-outs has plunged dramatically

Is a lack of jobs killing some of America’s most economically vulnerable women?

That’s one of the provocative conclusions of Jennifer Karas Montez, a researcher at Harvard University, and author with Anna Zajacova, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Wyoming, who set out to explain why the average lifespan of a white woman who did not graduate from high school has plunged since 1990.

Yes, Americans are living longer than ever. If you’re a white female college graduate in the United States, you’ve never enjoyed better odds of living past 80 years old. Yet the same is not true for that woman’s less-educated peers.

Montez and Zajacova’s findings were published Thursday in the Journal of Health and Social Behavior. They discovered that a white woman lacking a high school diploma had a 37% greater chance of dying than a more educated contemporary between 1997 and 2001. The trend has actually been worsening over time. For the period between 2002 and 2006, the odds for a shorter life span jumped up to an astonishing 68%.

This echoes the findings of other researchers, who have found that white women who never completed high school lost five years off their lives compared to better-educated peers over the past several decades. Strangely, these white women are not living as long African-American women who did not make it through high school – and that’s despite the fact that African Americans do not live as long as white people in the United States overall.

The reasons for the fall in life expectancy for the least educated of white women has been a cause of much speculation and theorizing in recent years, with suspected causes ranging from increased access to prescription pills, to continued high rates of smoking by Americans with the least amount of formal education credentials.

This is where Montez and Zajacova come in. They parsed the data to see what they could find. While they did indeed discover that these women smoked more, they were also hurt by the lack of regular jobs.

“There has been a trend in looking at health policy to look at the behavior,” Montez said. “It tends to blame the victim. It says, ‘if this subgroup of women would stop smoking, it would not be a problem.’

“What we showed is that it’s a much bigger problem than that.”

Jobs, as most of us know, are not just a source of a paycheck. In a time when we are living increasingly isolated lives, with less in the way of friends, civic support and family companionship, the workplace offers everything from a social network to a source of accomplishment.

Jobs can, in short, keep you healthy and alive. If you lack one, you are likely to be less healthy than those who are in the workforce – and you will, at least in this analysis – die younger.

Yet the jobs on offer to women – or anyone, for that matter – without a college degree are not exactly high quality. “Thirty years ago you didn’t need a high school degree to get a union job with predictable hours and a decent salary; but today being out in the workforce with a high school degree means a service job, unpredictable hours and little in the way of fringe benefits,” Montez notes.

So chin up, ladies, and lean in?

Well, not exactly. Many in this crowd couldn’t lean in even if they wanted. Women lacking a high school diploma are also significantly less likely to marry – but are more likely to be single mothers than their better-educated peers. This leaves them often unable to take or keep many of the positions open to them – which almost always combine low salaries (according to the Pew Charitable Trusts, the median household headed by a single mom enjoys an income of $23,000) with little in the way of benefits, and where almost all flexibility is in the hands of the employer, not the employee. As a result, according to the advocacy organization Legal Momentum, the percentage of single moms employed on a year-round basis fell from 49% in 2007 to 44% in 2011.

If you need an example of how this works in action, look at the increasingly “on call” world of many service-sector jobs, whose demands amounted to “no mothers wanted” signs on the application. Affordable quality childcare is difficult to arrange in the best of circumstances, but almost impossible to find when one doesn’t know how many hours – or when those hours are going to be – one is going to be working week-to-week. The same, of course, is true for eldercare, another burden that falls primarily on women.

As if this were not enough, many of these sorts of jobs demand full-time commitment in exchange for part-time hours – the sort of thing a corporation can get away with when there are too many people looking for too few jobs. Barbara Ehrenreich has written that she would not have even been able to report her classic bestseller Nickel and Dimed in the post-recession world. “In 2000, I had been able to walk into a number of jobs pretty much off the street. Less than a decade later, many of these jobs had disappeared and there was stiff competition for those that remained,” she wrote in a 2011 essay.

In this environment, no one is cutting anyone a break for childcare or anything else, for that matter. So Montez is calling for increased assistance to help the most vulnerable among us. Paid parental leave. More subsidized childcare. Work schedules that give employees flexibility or routine as needed – the sorts of things women’s advocacy organizations have been requesting for decades. “Perhaps one way to solve this problem would be to raise the tax on cigarettes but if you go after health behavior it’s just an endless game of whack-a-mole,” Montez said. “Perhaps a better way would be to increase opportunities for low-skilled workers and get them in the workforce and keep them there,” Montez said.

This, of course, goes counter to just about every trend here in the United States, where we are encouraged to go-it-alone more and more with each passing year and, in fact, the automatic federal budget cuts caused by the continuing sequestration are causing cuts to services ranging from Head Start to Meals on Wheels.

But we can always dream, can’t we? Lives may depend on it.

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