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.

The Pak Banker - - Editorial - Bob Her­bert

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.

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