Who's hit the worst by the recession?

David Leonhardt, New York Times columnist and reporter


Kai Ryssdal: It's going to be another couple of days before we get the official picture of the February labor market. The jobs report comes out Friday morning. In the meanwhile, though, the payroll processing firm ADP gave us its version today. Almost 700,000 jobs vanished last month. New York Times columnist David Leonhardt writes about unemployment as the key characteristic of this Great Recession in the paper today. Hi, David.

DAVID LEONHARDT: Nice to be back Kai.

Ryssdal: Job losses obviously are the signature of this recession. But the signature is a little different this time than in recessions past, no?

LEONHARDT: That's right. So the last two recessions. The recession of the early 90s and the early part of this decade in 2001, the job losses were much more even between more educated and less-educated workers. Whereas in the past the brunt really fell on less-educated workers. In this recession so far, we're going back to that old model. And the brunt is really falling much more on less-educated workers. So we see much more job loss in construction and in retail, and the unemployment rate for workers without a college degree has gone up significantly more than the unemployment rate for workers with a college degree.

Ryssdal: Also, you point out today more for men than women.

LEONHARDT: Yeah, much more for men than women. You know, there's a chance that we're going to get to this point, where believe it or not, the work force, at least the payroll work force, people who work at jobs rather than self-employed, is going to be more than half female, which is really quite something. Every one of the most recent recessions has hit men harder than women. And the easiest way to think about it at this time is just the difference between construction, which is about the hardest hit sector, is overwhelmingly male, and health care, which is still growing, and is much more female than, say, something like construction.

Ryssdal: Is there a way to make sense of it in terms of ethnic groups too? You point out in the paper that Latinos are being hit really hard this time.

LEONHARDT: They are. If you go back and you look at expansions when the economy is doing well, which is most of the time, and recessions, when its shrinking, minority groups, Blacks and Latinos at least, do better in expansion in terms of employment than whites. So over the last 20 years or so the employment rates of minority groups have actually risen somewhat more than the employment rate of whites during good times. But they're hurt much more during bad times. Minorities tend to be in more cyclical industries. And again, if you think about construction, the construction work force was heavily, heavily Latino. The unemployment rate for Latino men in this country three years ago or so was 3.6 percent below the unemployment rate for whites. The unemployment rate for Latino men now is 11 percent and that's just an unbelievable rise. It even understates what is going on because a fair number of people who have lost their jobs have gone home to Mexico or to Central America and obviously aren't counted in the unemployment statistics.

Ryssdal: You ended your piece today on what you might call a hopeful note. That what this recession is going to do is actually collapse the difference -- the spread in the wealth gap -- in this country.

LEONHARDT: Yeah, and there's a number of reasons for that. The first is Wall Street is not going to look like what it used to look like. And Wall Street is responsible for a huge share of what economists call the upper tale of equality, the growth and the share of the income of the top 1 percent. The second is policy. Tax rates have fallen the most for very top earners over the last few decades, the same people who have been getting biggest pre-tax raises. And the Obama administration clearly is setting out to change that. And then education is the third piece. The absolute best thing that could come out of this recession would be a real surge in educational attainment. If you get more educated people what happens is not only does the economy grow quicker, but you also have more people who are essentially sharing in the bounty that comes with being more educated. And so a more educated population tends to be a less unequal population.

Ryssdal: David Leonhardt is a columnist for The New York Times. He's a staff writer at the Times' Magazine as well. David, thanks a lot.

LEONHARDT: Thanks, Kai.

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Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.


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