WOMEN IN NEED. Helping displaced homemakers regain economic footing

Displaced homemakers are the most recent segment of American society to be placed in the economic spotlight. A new analysis, released this week, of the 1980 census finds nearly 11.5 million of them. It says many are poor, and nearly 70 percent of them are 55 or older. This is a nearly threefold increase in 11 years, according to the study.

Displaced homemakers are women who, generally through widowhood or divorce, now lack the income they formerly had.

The new analysis, by the Displaced Homemakers Network, provides information that America's public officials can use to determine whether some of these women require assistance. And, if they do, how many are in need, and what kinds of programs would be most helpful.

``The older a displaced homemaker is, the more likely she is to be unemployed, with the rate of unemployment rising to 75 percent for women aged 55 to 64,'' says Donna LeClair, the network's president.

Further refinement of the figures may be helpful to social planners. The analysis, one social scientist notes, does not answer questions such as how many of the over-55s prefer employment to retirement. It shows that well over half of the nearly 8 million displaced homemakers over 55 have less than a 10th-grade education, and that slightly more than a third of the over-55s live in official poverty.

The analysis cites that information as evidence that public education and training programs should be made more broadly available to the over-55s to prepare them for full-time employment.

Nearly 1,000 local programs exist throughout the United States to help the displaced homemakers adjust to their new status and, if they desire, to move - sometimes for the first time ever - into the work force. Yet social scientists note that a significantly larger number of programs exist to aid unmarried teen-age mothers, of whom there are not quite 300,000 nationwide, US census figures show, compared with 11.5 million displaced homemakers.

One point the Homemakers Network makes is that changes in divorce laws to make settlements more equitable would benefit many older women. Some 30 percent of women homemakers who lose their source of income and become displaced do so because they become divorced. The study quotes statistics that show that most women become much poorer during the first years after divorce, while their former husbands become more affluent.

The older women who do seek to join the work force will be doing so at a time when two conflicting trends are evident among working people over 55.

First, more American workers are taking early retirement, most often at 62 but sometimes even sooner. In large part this is due to the relative attractiveness of social security benefits.

At the same time, however, many Americans of retirement age ``can work and do work,'' notes Douglas Besharov, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

``An increasing number of older people are healthier than before,'' he says, ``they're able to work and they want to work.''

Demographers say a shortage of younger workers will develop in the US over the next few years. In some areas it is already showing up.

Mr. Besharov says that some companies, McDonald's fast-food restaurants, for one, are advertising specifically for older workers.

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