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Looking at Unemployment From a Family Perspective

We tend to talk about jobs at the individual level. The government’s jobs report (stay tuned for the next one this Friday!) shows how many people found or lost jobs in any given month. The national unemployment rate, now at 6.7 percent, measures how many people are out of work as a share of the labor force.

But in many ways what matters more is what happens at the family level. Joblessness affects the whole family, not just the individuals left brushing up their résumés. On Friday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics released a report on employment and unemployment at the family level. It offers a fascinating look at employment patterns by family characteristics, such as race, marital status and number of children. (The chart below refers to the characteristics of the householder, or the person in whose name the home is owned or rented.)


First, the basics: Nearly 7.7 million American families contained at least one unemployed adult in 2013 — 9.6 percent, down from 10.5 percent in 2012 and 12.4 percent in 2010. But families are still much worse off than before the recession; in 2007, just 6.3 percent of families experienced unemployment. (Quick note on definitions: These figures are full-year averages, meaning they estimate the average number of families with an unemployed member at any given time over the year. The share of families that experience unemployment at some point during the year is no doubt higher.)

There’s quite a bit of variation among different types of families. For example, 7.8 percent of families with a married couple experienced unemployment last year, compared to 14.1 percent of families headed by unmarried people. Married couples also had another advantage when one partner lost work: In 79 percent of cases, at least one person in the family still had a job.

People with children under 18 were more likely to be employed than people without kids (6.1 percent versus 8 percent), although that likely has a lot to do with age: Teens and young adults had by far the highest unemployment rate of any age group. Among families with children, unmarried mothers and fathers were far more likely to be unemployed than married ones, and women were more likely to be unemployed than men. There were just over 4 million families with children in which neither parent had a job in 2013, down only slightly from 4.2 million in 2012.

Ben Casselman was a senior editor and the chief economics writer for FiveThirtyEight.