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Tracy Murphy puts groceries away while her mother, Barbara Conway, rests in her apartment in Jamesville, N.Y.

HEATHER AINSWORTH • New York Times,

Women caught in fiscal squeeze

  • Article by: DIONNE SEARCEY New York Times
  • June 23, 2014 - 11:42 PM

Tracy Murphy was managing a nonprofit agency five years ago when her mother became seriously ill with heart problems. She promptly left her job to care for her, a task that has consumed Murphy ever since.

“For me, it was a no-brainer,” said Murphy, who lives in Syracuse, N.Y. “When I was growing up, she sacrificed for me.”

Murphy, 54, set aside her career aspirations, drained her savings account and eventually sold her gold jewelry to help make ends meet while shuttling her mother, who is 85, to doctors’ appointments and running errands.

“I always felt like I can find another job eventually — but I only have one mother,” she said.

Murphy is part of a small but economically significant group that is bucking a powerful decades-long trend of women of all ages into the labor market. In the years since the last recession began, many women like Murphy, in their late 40s and early 50s, have left the workforce just as they were reaching their peak earning years.

The demands on middle-aged women to care for their parents, particularly during difficult economic times that force many families to share resources, are not the only reason for the shift. Some economists also attribute the unexpected phenomenon to extensive budget cuts by state and local governments, which employ women in large numbers and which were hit harder during this most recent recession than in previous downturns.

“It’s a disaster for the women concerned,” said Ian Shepherdson, an independent economist, “but it’s also bad news for the economy because they are not contributing to growth and their skills are eroding through extended inactivity.”

Prime of their careers

As the economy struggles to get back on track, the labor participation rate remains feeble for almost everyone. Still, the losses affecting this group of women — who normally would be in the prime of their careers — stand out from the crowd and highlight the challenges facing middle-aged workers who, for whatever reason, find themselves out of a job.

Since the start of the recession, the number of working women 45 to 54 has dropped more than 3.5 percent. There now are about 1 million fewer women of that age in the labor force than at their peak at the end of 2009. For younger women, the rate of decline was about 2 percent. Many of those in their 20s dropped out to return to school or left the workforce temporarily to focus on caring for young children.

Men, too, have been pushed out of the labor market as jobs in the construction and manufacturing industries have been slow to return. But the rate of decline among adult men has largely tracked the curves of the economy and has been spread more evenly across ages.

A Pew Research Center survey conducted in October reported that 27 percent of the women surveyed had quit their job to care for a child or family member.

Sarita Gupta, co-director of Caring Across Generations, an advocacy group for home care workers and patients, said the difficulties can stack up.

Lost wages, security

“Women are falling out of the workforce to be primary caregivers to aging parents,” she said, “but as women go out of the workforce it means they sacrifice their own financial security.”

AARP’s Public Policy Institute estimates that women 50 and over who leave the workforce permanently to care for a parent lose nearly $325,000 in wages and benefits.

“It saves a lot of money but there’s a huge personal sacrifice,” said Jeannie Brown, 49, of Belgrade, Mont., who left her job as an accounting clerk for county government in 2009 to care for her disabled granddaughter and her mother, who had a stroke.

The toll that caregiving takes is more than financial. Researchers say depression and anxiety are common among women who care for an older relative.

The decline in public employment also appears to have played a major role in the exodus of middle-aged working women. Between September 2008 and April of this year, 640,000 state and local government workers lost their jobs, according to Labor Department data. Almost half were in education, an industry where a typical employee is a woman in her 40s.

In Chicago, Katherine White was laid off in 2011 from her job teaching writing and history to fifth- and sixth-graders. Initially, her life was a whirl of activity as she fine-tuned her résumé and applied for numerous full-time teaching positions.

Both too young, too old

“I tell you, I really thought I had the job in a lot of cases, and it didn’t happen,” White, 56, said.

In 2012 she accepted a temporary teaching position for one semester. When that job ended, she started firing off résumés again. “No nibbles in over a year,” she said.

“A lot of teachers, we say we’re too young to retire and too old to be competitive with the market out there,” she said. “We’re between a rock and a hard place, and you have to know how to navigate through it and reinvent yourself.”

© 2014 Star Tribune