New book, 'The Tolls of Uncertainty,' examines the US unemployment system

Sara LaJeunesse
June 17, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — In April 2020, soon after the pandemic forced the U.S. into lockdown, the unemployment rate reached 14.8%, the highest documented since data collection began in 1948. More than a year later, 4.2 million fewer women and 3.5 million fewer men are employed, compared to just before the start of the pandemic. In her new book, “The Tolls of Uncertainty: How Privilege and the Guilt Gap Shape Unemployment in America,” Sarah Damaske, associate professor of sociology and labor and employment relations, offers a look at the nation’s unemployment system — who it helps, who it hurts and what, if anything, we can do to make it fair.

Book cover, The Tolls of Uncertainty
IMAGE: Princeton University Press

“The unemployment system generates inequalities that cast uncertainties on the search for work and on life beyond the world of work, threatening opportunity in America,” said Damaske. “For example, I found that meager unemployment insurance benefits make it more difficult to search for work.”

To look closely at these issues, Damaske followed the lives of four individuals over the course of their unemployment experiences. By accompanying them on their journey through the unemployment system, Damaske provides a vivid portrait of the unemployed’s work lives before they lost their jobs; the emotional strain caused by their job loss; the effects of their job loss and unemployment on their families’ finances, health care decisions and household; and how all these factors shaped their ability to search for work, as well as their relationships with work.

Sarah Damaske

Sarah Damaske, associate professor of sociology and labor and employment relations

IMAGE: Sarah Damaske, Penn State

Damaske explains that “those who had more before their job loss had a greater buffer from the strains of unemployment. And some of these preexisting differences became greater over the unemployment period because the unemployment system currently works best for those who need help the least.”

Damaske found that these differences were profoundly shaped by a person’s gender and class. As she explained in a recent New York Times article, men and women did not go through the same experiences. Neither did the middle class and the working class. Neither did their families.

“I met women whose families told them that they should be pleased to have lost a job, so they could be more available to take care of their families,” said Damaske.

One married mother of three, Pamela, told Damaske her husband was happy about her job loss. “Now I could stay at home, and he made a huge garden for me to have to work on, so that’s what I’m supposed to do,” she said. Yet, Damaske explained, “Pamela wanted to return to work, not tend a garden.”

For their part, not all men wanted to rush back to work, particularly not the middle-class men. Some, like Neil, a married man without kids, were excited by the idea of some time off. As Neil told Damaske, “I’ve been enjoying the past few weeks of not having much responsibility because (I've worked) 25 years more than most normal people would work, and the stresses (were high). So, I’m like gosh, darn, it’s my time.” He relished the time spent not working because he had felt burdened by years of overwork. Yet, some men faced enormous financial pressures, particularly working-class men who were experiencing the latest in a long line of layoffs.

In addition to barriers women face in obtaining new employment, Damaske’s research also revealed the high levels of blame that women who have lost jobs place on themselves.

“The women I met described owing their families an apology for their job loss, in two ways,” said Damaske. “First, many women literally sacrificed their health. After losing health insurance, they acquired it for spouses or children but not themselves. They stopped going to their doctors, taking their medicines, or taking care of themselves the ways they knew they should. Women also apologized by doing more of the daily household and childcare chores.”

Victoria, a cohabiting mother of one, greatly increased her work in the home: “I feel guilty if (my partner) comes home and I’m sitting down. That doesn’t seem right to me.” Victoria took on all the vacuuming and laundry, as well as many of the traditional “male” chores, including mowing the lawn and taking out the trash. She started doing so many household chores that she thought her job loss had made her boyfriend a bit “lazy.” Despite this complaint, Victoria had not spoken to him about pitching in more at home.

Her guilt over her job loss led Victoria to feel like the division was fair. “I feel like I should be doing more because I’m not working,” she said.

"The Tolls of Uncertainty," published by Princeton University Press, offers suggestions for the political and societal changes that are needed to fix our broken unemployment system. Damaske provides a blueprint to reach full economic recovery for all.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated June 17, 2021