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The 1970s are often remembered as a time of female empowerment: The feminist movement began; women entered the workforce in large numbers; the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion came down in 1973.
But for many women, the ’70s were a frightening time. Divorce rates doubled in the course of a decade, rising to half of all marriages. That, combined with an economic slump, meant many women found themselves in a position in which they had never been before: out of a job, with few marketable skills, and no one to support them.
Congress moved to respond. In 1976, lawmakers amended the Vocational Education Act to create programs to train what they referred to as displaced homemakers. By 1985, the Displaced Homemakers Network, a nonprofit group, counted 425 such programs in community colleges, YWCAs, and state agencies. The programs served about 100,000 women a year.
As women’s positions changed, the issue began to fade. By 2003, only 2,643 people—presumably women—were enrolled in federally funded displaced homemaker programs, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Now this federal subsidy, which seemed like a throwback only a few years ago, has become relevant again. Increasing numbers of people are turning to displaced homemaker programs for help finding jobs and learning skills. In the course of President Obama’s term, the number of people who participated has grown fivefold, to about 50,000 in 2010-11.
It works like this: If you’re a homemaker—by the government’s definition, a spouse or member of a household who is dependent on someone else’s income—and looking for work, you might make your way to a state unemployment office or a community college in order to seek training. At that point, the school’s or the state’s training officer would point you to a program that is tailored to you. Not all states have programs like these: You have to apply for a federal grant from the Workforce Investment Act, which distributed about $1.2 billion to displaced workers in 2011. A Labor Department spokesman, Jason Kuruvilla, says he doesn’t have a breakdown of what portion of these funds goes to displaced homemakers.
Today there are programs in Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New York, and Washington. Run through community colleges and state unemployment centers, the programs teach participants résumé-building skills, as well as “assertiveness training,” “decision-making training,” and where to get child care for your kids when you’re at work.
According to the Census, about one out of three married couples includes a spouse that is not in the labor force. That number—about 16 million people—includes married women who have temporarily left the job market to raise children and will likely return to it, and also husbands whose wives became the sole breadwinner after the men lost their jobs. As Obama said in the debate this week, that situation is becoming more common.
The number also includes homemakers whose partners have lost their jobs and are finding that they have no choice but to try their luck in a labor market they may have been out of for years. In general, the long-term unemployed fare worse in the labor market than any other group. Of those, homemakers are the long, long-term unemployed. Getting them back to work—or into the workforce for the first time—won’t be easy, or cheap.