Wake Up Call: July 9, 2012
Still Jobless… after all these years
UPDATE: HBO is airing a new documentary on long-term unemployment Monday evening, July 9 2012, at 9pm.
According to nitpickers, the Great Recession supposedly ended a year or two ago. I’ve often wondered about people, especially in the media, who talk about it in the past tense. What planet are they living on? They actually seem to believe the line they’ve been fed, and that they’re feeding us. And the experts who know about such things even have a tortured new phrase to smooth over the matter – “jobless recovery” – though it strikes me as a contradiction in terms.
With this being a national election cycle, unemployment may be back in the news again for a bit, with politicians and their surrogates in full spin mode. They’ll argue about whether things are getting better or worse, or how fast, or whose fault it is. And they’ll pretend they intend to do something constructive. The unemployment “rate” they cite, though, is a deeply misleading number. For starters, it leaves out most of the long-term unemployed (by some definitions those unemployed longer than 27 weeks, now numbering more than 5.4 million in the U.S.), and those who have dropped out of the system and slid off the radar screen altogether. In the harshest possible sense, those people just don’t count.
In a disturbing article in this week’s Rolling Stone magazine, Jeff Tietz nails the core problem:
The Great Recession cost 8 million Americans their jobs. Three years after the economy technically entered recovery, there are positions available for fewer than one out of every three job seekers. In this labor market, formerly middle-class workers … cannot reliably secure even entry-level full-time work, and many will never again find jobs as lucrative and stable as those they lost. Long-term unemployment tarnishes resumes and erodes basic skills, making it harder for workers to regain high-paying jobs, and the average length of unemployment is currently at a 60-year high. Many formerly middle-class people will never be middle-class again. Self-identities derived from five or 10 or 40 years of middle-class options and expectations will capsize. (114)
In the real world out here, it’s still the land of non-existent jobs and a massive housing/mortgage crisis. Massive unemployment is still ravaging the middle class. The two categories, unemployed and homeless, used to be mostly distinct, but they’ve now converged in an ominous new way. There is now a whole new population of formerly employed, middle-class people and families who have lost their jobs, their homes, and their moorings.
Except that here in 21st Century America, there’s one last stop on the way from one to the other, from unemployed to homeless, from self-sufficient to living on the streets and sleeping in the bushes. Your car. As long as you can keep up the payments, and buy a little gas, and find a place to park, and squeeze everybody in, you can always live in your car.
In his article, Teitz digs into the problem and one response to it. In Santa Barbara, California, a small number of churches participate in a program called “Safe Parking” that offers overnight parking permits, usually for spots on church lots, to people living in their vehicles.
Now, Santa Barbara is not Rochester, nor is it Geneseo. Partly due to its moderate climate, Santa Barbara has traditionally had a larger-than-average homeless population. Safe Parking was launched in 2003 by local activists well before the recession hit, organized under the umbrella of a not-for-profit, the New Beginnings Counseling Center.
But the number of lots and participants in Safe Parking has surged since the onset of the Great Recession, doubled, and continues to climb. Formerly middle-class people are now the norm: teachers and computer repairmen and yoga instructors, business owners and entrepreneurs. Teitz writes, “It can take years for unemployed workers from the middle class to burn through their resources – savings, credit, salable belongings, home equity, loans from family and friends.”
Here in western New York, no Safe Parking programs exist. In Rochester, the only programs that involve vehicles are a couple of agencies, mainly overnight shelters, that run their own vans around in extreme weather to pick up street people and get them indoors. But that’s different. Climate may be a factor driving the mobile homeless out of the western New York area. Professionals that I’ve talked to say that they undoubtedly exist here, but have no idea how many unemployed people in this area are now living in their vehicles.
The key question, of course, is why can’t the long-term unemployed find jobs. There are many reasons and factors behind long-term unemployment, including job scarcity and various kinds of discrimination on the macro level, and skill obsolescence, depression, and serious psychological trauma on the personal level.
People living in their vehicles also face a number of extraordinary challenges in the job hunt, including things like hygiene (how many YMCA’s will let you in to shower?), appearance (wrinkled clothing, out-of-date haircuts), child care, and the like.
The very status of “homeless” itself makes it harder to get a job. The lack of a traditional address is a flag for potential employers, who are generally reluctant to consider hiring a homeless person, no matter what their resume looks like. In one story after another applicants get screened out, interviews go bad, searches fizzle, when the job-seeker’s status as homeless surfaces. Sometimes it’s as unavoidable as leaving a line blank on an application form. It’s stupid. It’s not fair. It’s discrimination. And it’s brutally circular: I can’t get an address (home, apartment) without a job; and I can’t get a job without an address.
As time adds up, a whole complex of challenges pile one on top of another. The longer joblessness lasts, the less likely a person is to find a job at all. Studies show that after 12 months of unemployment, the odds of finding a job in the following month drop to 1 in 10.
Widespread, extended unemployment, which is what we have in this country right now, including in western New York, is exacting a massive toll on the social fabric of the country, in broken neighborhoods, broken families, broken lives. The scale of the disaster continues to grow, and the damage will be felt for generations.
Conservatives, who seem to be driving the bus in Washington these days, and certainly driving the national political conversation, rant about our biggest problem being “runaway government spending,” usually meaning virtually any program that supports the poor and the unemployed. The implicit and explicit complaint is that those lazy people are avoiding work, and sponging for the fun of it. Our taxes are their fault. That kind of thinking is the luxury of those who either have, or don’t need, a job.
By the way, speaking of runaway government spending: the 2008 bank bailout that launched this Great Recession, engineered by the Bush administration and implemented by the Obama, cost U.S. taxpayers more than $8 trillion dollars, or $25,000 for every man, woman, and child in the country. And last month, the U.S. Federal Reserve contributed more billions in near secrecy to bail out failing European banks.
Why is it we can afford that massive government giveaway, and we can afford at least two viciously expensive endless wars, and maybe a third, but we can’t afford a nationwide, comprehensive re-employment program that includes things like mailboxes, showers, and parking spaces? Seriously. Why is it we can afford to flush all that money down the toilet, but we can’t afford to take care of each other? What are we thinking?
Previous columns by Mike Williams
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