NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Part-time work has always been a big part of the American story.

Generations of Americans can recall their experience in part-time work.

  • Think of a dad working a second, part-time job to pay the mortgage and to get the kids through college.
  • Think of a graduate student working to pay off a student loan and keep some extra dollars while training to become a doctor, lawyer or business executive.
  • Think of a 16-year-old taking fast food orders at Burger King — it's her first job ever and an opportunity for some extra cash for college and hanging out with friends.

In the second decade of the 21st century, however, the employment landscape is changing. More and more Americans who want full-time work just can't find it and have to settle for part-time work just to get by.

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That's the consensus from the Carsey Institute at the University of New Hampshire, which offers a fresh look at part-time jobs in an economy that has yet to recover fully from the Great Recession. It's not a pretty picture.

"Part-time employment increased dramatically during the recent recession for both men and women," explains Rebecca Glauber, assistant professor of sociology at the Carsey Institute and a lead researcher on the study.

Some underlying data:

  • The single largest five-year increase in involuntary part-time employment since the 1970s occurred between 2007-12.
  • The involuntary part-time employment rate more than doubled between 2007-12. For women, it rose to 7.8% from 3.6%. For men, the rate increased to 5.9% from 2.4%.
  • While the unemployment rate has fallen slowly since 2010, the rate of workers in involuntary part-time positions has remained relatively constant.

"Individuals work part time for many reasons. Some do so to care for children and elderly family members. Others do so because they are in school. Yet others work part time because they cannot find full-time work," she says. "This latter reason may be a cause of concern for both workers and employers, as well as those interested in the long-term productivity and efficiency of the U.S. economy."

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According to the Carsey Institute policy brief, Wanting More but Working Less: Involuntary Part-Time Employment and Economic Vulnerability, Americans working less than 35 hours per week are much more likely to be stuck in poverty than peers at full-time jobs.

Involuntary part-time employment is a key factor in poverty, the study says. Last year one in four involuntary part-time workers lived in poverty, whereas just one in 10 full-time workers lived in poverty.

The dollar figures cited in the Carsey study show the widening gap between full- and part-time workers. U.S. women who work full-time showed an annual median household income of $31,928 more than women who work part-time. For men, that gap is greater, at $35,000 annually.

What can be done to minimize the financial damage to U.S. part-time workers and their families? Not much right now, although Washington D.C. politicians and U.S. businesses can help.

"Policies that increase the quality of part-time positions, such as unemployment insurance for part-time workers, may go far in alleviating the economic penalties associated with involuntary part-time employment," Glauber says.

Those penalties are adding up, and fast. For now, any help from public or private interests just isn't on the horizon.

— By Brian O'Connell