By Bill Boyarsky
As President Barack Obama, speaking last week in Buffalo, N.Y., was assuring the country that “our economy is growing again,” the usual large number of unemployed lined up at a community aid center in Los Angeles for food, clothing, advice and help finding a job. “For us, it is getting worse,” said Jan Maseda, who runs the center, one of several founded by Lutheran churches. Her clientele has doubled to 300 a day in the past year and a half of the recession.
The confident-looking, eloquent Obama, who spoke Thursday, stood in sharp contrast to the chronically unemployed at the community care center in a struggling section of L.A.’s San Fernando Valley. Most of them had been out of work for months or years. “We are exploding,” said Maseda. “We’re now seeing white-collar families, people living in their cars.”
I visited the LSS (Lutheran Social Services) Community Center to learn more about the long-term unemployed after reading a report—“No End in Sight: The Agony of Prolonged Unemployment”—just released by the John S. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development of Rutgers University.
The report said, “Despite positive signs of economic growth and a rising stock market, millions of unemployed Americans see no end to the Great Recession that wrecked their finances and threw their lives into turmoil … the vast majority of jobless Americans have not found new jobs. When they did find work, all but a few took pay cuts and lost benefits. Among those still searching for work— many for more than a year—are millions who have never been without a job and who have at least a college education.”
Debbie Borie-Holtz, Carl Van Horn and Cliff Zukin surveyed 1,202 men and women who were unemployed in August 2009, and the three researchers were able to reconnect with 908 of these people in March 2010.
They wrote, “It is remarkable that fully two-thirds (67%) of those jobless last August were still jobless this March, and 12% had given up looking for jobs. Since August, the number of job seekers searching for more than seven months rose from 48% to 70%. Over half do not think they will find a new job in the near future even though 73% are willing to take a pay cut and 77% are willing to change careers in order to get a job.”
For a substantial number, there is no safety net. Almost 50 percent are not receiving unemployment insurance. A small number of these still have health insurance.
With the federal and state governments pulling back, the long-term unemployed are increasingly dependent on the kindness of nonprofit social service agencies for health care and other services.
Those coming into the Los Angeles center for help are a cross section of the unemployed. “We had a writer in here,” one worker told me. “He had a great CV. He was embarrassed to come here. He didn’t have enough money to pay his utility bill.” The center paid the bill. “Lots of the people coming in are dressed exactly as you are,” Maseda said, noting my chinos, sport coat and button-down sport shirt.
Machinists, teachers, car washers, short-order cooks, computer technicians, hotel workers, secretaries, horse groomers, sales people and construction workers are among them. Some are developmentally disabled men and women who would have found work in better times. Some are substance-addicted and/or mentally ill.
Some are recently discharged veterans of the Iraq or Afghanistan war. The vets usually are in their early 20s, having entered the service at 18. Despite the promise of Army recruiting ads, four years of combat has left them with no marketable skills and often with severe mental troubles.
Using a state grant of $500,000, the center provided job training and helped the veterans find jobs. But the administration of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger ended the program, and the veterans’ room at the center is unused.
Obama’s main point in Buffalo was “[t]his month was better than last month. Next month is going to be stronger than this one. And next year is going to be better than this year. … We are on a course that is working.”
But Obama also acknowledged the plight of the long-term unemployed. “… [I]f you are still looking for a job out there, it’s still a recession,” he said. “… It’s not a real recovery until people feel it in their lives, until Americans who want work can find it, until families can pay bills and send their kids to college.”
The nation is far from such a recovery. Many of the businesses that are now more profitable have done it by shedding jobs. You see it whenever you encounter a phone answering system that has replaced office workers.
The short-term impact of this is severe. In their study, the Rutgers researchers found that “[t]he emotional upheaval felt by those who have been looking for work for so long range from physical distress to isolation and, worse, substance abuse, loss of self-confidence, and isolation.”
Unemployment affects whole families.
The insecurity of being raised by frightened and constantly stressed parents will shape the behavior of the children of the unemployed, just as it did with the children of the Great Depression.
Moreover, they will have a harder time than their parents did in getting the training necessary to compete in a technological economy. The state university near the community center I visited is restricting admissions and raising tuition, as are other universities in a public education system that once offered opportunity for all.
The pain of this recession will be with us for many years.
Flickr / aflcio