After the Great Recession

Radcliffe on the Road: Washington, DC
Photo by Larry CannerPhoto by Larry Canner

How did women fare in the Great Recession that began in 2008? That question and others were explored in early March by three Radcliffe Institute fellows at an event in Washington, DC.

Ruth Milkman RI ’12, the Matina S. Horner Distinguished Visiting Professor at Radcliffe, discussed the parallels between the Great Depression of the 1930s and what the media often called the “man-cession” of 2007–2008. She pointed out that both in the 1930s and in the past few years, unemployment rose more for men than for women at the beginning of the crisis, but that female unemployment went up as the downturn continued. Again echoing the 1930s experience, the birthrate fell in the Great Recession, and in many families, women became the primary wage earners.

Milkman also noted that unemployment levels during the recent recession varied more by education and race than by gender. In 2010, black men with less than a high school education had the highest unemployment rate: 24.7 percent—more than five times the rate that year for white women with a college degree: 4.2 percent. Milkman is a professor of sociology at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and the academic director of CUNY’s Joseph S. Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies.

Andrea Louise Campbell ’88, RI ’13, a political scientist and the Katherine Hampson Bessell Fellow at the Institute, described how the states have fared in the Great Recession. Unlike the federal government, 49 states have balanced-budget requirements. “They can’t engage in deficit spending, at least not to the same degree that the federal government can,” she said. So when recessions come along, states have to raise revenues and cut spending, which undermines federal stimulus efforts and makes the recession last longer.

In the Great Recession, state revenues dropped, bringing an end to three decades of growth. Two main sources of state revenue, personal income tax and sales tax, fell quite a bit, and demand for spending grew, with more public school and college students and more Medicaid recipients. Huge budget gaps were the result of this increase in spending and decrease in revenues.

States have two strategies to deal with this situation: raise revenue and cut spending. “Spending cuts outweigh tax increases three to one,” Campbell said.

Campbell is a professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Amy Goldstein RI ’12,
 a journalist who held the Katherine Hampson Bessell Fellowship at Radcliffe in 2011–2012, discussed job retraining, which she said has become very popular with both political parties. Research she conducted in Janesville, Wisconsin, revealed that job retraining has not been effective, however.

She looked at employment data before and after the recession for those who had gone back to school for retraining and those who hadn’t. “The people who had not retrained were working at a greater rate,” she said.

Goldstein, a staff writer 
for the Washington Post covering social policy issues, quoted Anthony P. Carnevale of Georgetown University, whom she interviewed for her project. “Training doesn’t create jobs,” he said. “Jobs create training.”

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