Ned Barnett

On Labor Day, remember the jobless

ned.barnett@newsobserver.comAugust 31, 2013 

Last Tuesday, more than four years after the Great Recession officially ended, a weekly support group for the unemployed met at White Memorial Presbyterian Church in an affluent section of Raleigh.

The group, created at the start of the economic downturn, is now five years old. The meeting room filled. Extra chairs were brought in. Bob Gates, a retired executive and a founder of the group, counted heads: 111. Most were older than 40, many of them college graduates, some with advanced degrees and impressive former titles.

For them, like North Carolina’s other 417,000 unemployed, the recession is not over. And even for those who eventually find work, their extended unemployment will take a toll on their savings, earning power, relationships and self-esteem. In that sense, this brutal recession and the grindingly slow recovery will be with them as long as they live.

Tuesday’s group assembled to hear three speakers from the N.C. Justice Center on the subjects: “Jobs, wages and the policies that impact North Carolina’s workforce.” The first speaker, Allan Freyer, a policy analyst with the Justice Center’s Budget and Tax Center, apologized for being depressing, and he was.

Freyer told the group that this is the slowest recovery in North Carolina in 30 years. “The fundamental problem facing North Carolina is there are just not enough jobs,” he said. The state needs 114,000 new jobs just to get back to where it was when the recession began in December of 2007. To truly get back to even, it needs 377,000 new jobs to compensate for the growth in the state’s population since then.

With three people for every job opening, thousands have given up the search for work. Half of the unemployed will be out of work for at least six months. It will be longer for older job seekers who face doubts about the currency of their skills and rampant age discrimination.

It is said that no one is forgotten faster than a former ballplayer. But the unemployed know that the forgetting is faster when you leave the game of work. Former bosses and colleagues are busy and move on. Friends and relatives are sympathetic, but their attention fades. Ultimately, the unemployed are consigned to a limbo in which they wait for relief from a society that forgets they are there.

Nowhere has this forgetting and forsaking been more evident than in the response of government. Reacting to the pain of the Great Depression, FDR pushed through sweeping programs, including unemployment insurance, the Works Progress Administration and, yes, Social Security. People who are willing to work should have the dignity of work, Roosevelt believed, and workers reaching retirement age, he said, should have a source of support that enables them to “give up their jobs, and thus give to the younger generation greater opportunities for work.”

In contrast, the current government response to the Great Recession has been to bail out big banks and cut spending. President Obama did extend unemployment benefits, but he caved in to Republican demands for a federal hiring freeze and spending cuts that have put more people out of work.

In North Carolina, the response has been callous. Unemployment eligibility and benefits were cut by the General Assembly. Extended federal assistance for the unemployed and the uninsured was refused.

Meanwhile the unemployed and underemployed struggle on. One former member of the White Memorial group found a job supervising electronics installers. It pays half of what he made before being laid off as a technical writer near the start of the recession. After that he rolled through a choppy series of temporary contract jobs.

A 60-year-old Raleigh man with a master’s degree, he’s grateful for the work, but he’s been changed by his fitful and often fruitless search. He asked that his name not be used. Unemployment changed him, he said, “It was like getting slapped in the face by God.” He told of being turned down for low-skilled jobs after earning more than $70,000 at the peak of his past employment.

“Your hopes just dwindle and dwindle and your self-worth dwindles and dwindles. You have so much to offer, and you just can’t believe nobody wants you,” he said.

The problem, of course, isn’t that he’s not worth anything. He, like the people who crowd into the support group meeting every week, have a great deal to contribute. The question this Labor Day, as with every Labor Day since this economic crisis arrived, isn’t the value of the jobless, but our values as a society.

All who want to work should be given an opportunity to work, even if it be for low pay in some modern-day WPA. The United States is a rich country. It’s spending billions of dollars searching for threats while the obvious menace of high unemployment goes unexamined.

Is there no work to be done, bridges to be fixed, buildings to be painted, prisoners to be tutored? Once the nation extended a hand to its citizens who needed work. Now the attitude is a gruff, “Get a job.”

Editorial page editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-829-4512, or nbarnett@newsobserver.com

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