The data and the reality
The professors, at the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers, have been following their representative sample of workers since summer of 09.
Maybe they've stumbled onto something in their windowless rooms. Maybe the economy really is gathering steam. But in the rough and tumble of the real world, where families have to feed themselves and pay their bills, there are an awful lot of Americans being left behind.
A continuing national survey of workers who lost their jobs during the Great Recession, conducted by two professors at Rutgers University, offers anything but a rosy view of the economic prospects for ordinary Americans. It paints, instead, a portrait filled with gloom.
More than 15 million Americans are officially classified as jobless. The professors, at the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers, have been following their representative sample of workers since the summer of 2009. The report on their latest survey, just out this month, is titled: "The Shattered American Dream: Unemployed Workers Lose Ground, Hope, and Faith in Their Futures."
Over the 15 months that the surveys have been conducted, just one-quarter of the workers have found full-time jobs, nearly all of them for less pay and with fewer or no benefits. "For those who remain unemployed," the report says, "the cupboard has long been bare."
These were not the folks being coldly and precisely monitored, classified and quantified as they made their way to the malls to kick-start the economy. These were among the many millions of Americans who spent the holidays hurting.
As the report states: " The recession has been a cataclysm that will have an enduring effect. It is hard to overstate the dire shape of the unemployed."
Nearly two-thirds of the unemployed workers who were surveyed have been out of work for a year or more. More than a third have been jobless for two years. With their savings exhausted, many have borrowed money from relatives or friends, sold possessions to make ends meet and decided against medical examinations or treatments they previously would have considered essential.
Older workers who are jobless are caught in a particularly precarious state of affairs. As the report put it:
"We are witnessing the birth of a new class - the involuntarily retired. Many of those over age 50 believe they will not work again at a full-time 'real' job commensurate with their education and training. More than one-quarter say they expect to retire earlier than they want, which has longterm consequences for themselves and society. Many will file for Social Security as soon as they are eligible, despite the fact that they would receive greater benefits if they were able to delay retiring for a few years."
There is a fundamental disconnect between economic indicators pointing in a positive direction and the experience of millions of American families fighting desperately to fend off destitution. Some three out of every four Americans have been personally touched by the recession - either they've lost a job or a relative or close friend has. And the outlook, despite the spin being put on the latest data, is not promising.
No one is forecasting a substantial reduction in unemployment rates next year. And, as Motoko Rich reported in The Times this month, temporary workers accounted for 80 percent of the 50,000 jobs added by private sector employers in November.
Carl Van Horn, the director of the Heldrich Center and one of the two professors (the other is Cliff Zukin) conducting the survey, said he was struck by how pessimistic some of the respondents have become - not just about their own situation but about the nation's future. The survey found that workers in general are increasingly accepting the notion that the effects of the recession will be permanent, that they are the result of fundamental changes in the national economy.
"They're losing the idea that if you are determined and work hard, you can get ahead," said Dr. Van Horn. "They're losing that sense of optimism. They don't think that they or their children are going to fare particularly well."
The fact that so many Americans are out of work, or working at jobs that don't pay well, undermines the prospects for a robust recovery. Jobless people don't buy a lot of flat-screen TVs. What we're really seeing is an erosion of standards of living for an enormous portion of the population, including a substantial segment of the once solid middle class.
Not only is this not being addressed, but the self-serving, rightward lurch in Washington is all but guaranteed to make matters worse for working people.