Three weeks ago, I flew to Charlotte, North Carolina to participate in a conference of social and behavioral scientists. Because employment and the economy are topics that many within this group study, I expected to discuss research on employment and the economy at the conference. Like others, I worry that the media and the government’s focus on the economic hardships of the middle class will decrease discussions of and concern for the plight of lower-income groups. What I did not expect during this trip was the casual conversation that led me to consider these issues shortly after landing in Charlotte.
The only passenger aboard the bus that picked me up from the Charlotte airport, I asked the driver if he was Greg— the driver that I had spoken with a week earlier about getting to and from the hotel where my conference was being held.
“No, I’m Dan,” the driver replied. “Greg no longer works for the hotel. He quit last week.”
“He quit?” I asked. “Well, I just spoke with him last Sunday, and he said he could drive me to the Hilton in the mornings for my conference.”
“I can take you to the Hilton in the mornings,” Dan said. “Greg is an airplane pilot who worked as a driver for us after the airline he was working for laid him off. A different carrier offered him a job last week, so, naturally, he accepted it and quit his job with us. Greg shouldn’t have been working as a driver in the first place—not a man with his education and skills.”
In the past, economic recessions have primarily affected blue collar and low-level retail jobs, but as Greg’s story reveals, the current economic recession has affected many professional and skilled white-collar jobs as well. Yet, as troubling as they are, stories like Greg’s pale against the stories of many working-class and poor people who are struggling to survive after losing jobs under the so- called jobless economic recovery. Though clearly underemployed as a hotel bus driver, Greg is among the luckier workers today; at least he had secured a job—any job—after being laid off. But what about the 40% of unemployed people who suffer from long-term joblessness of six months or longer? According to data published by the Economic Policy Institute, people suffering from long-term joblessness are disproportionately blue-collar workers. And the current unemployment rate for blue-collar workers (17.4%) is more than two and half times higher than the rate for white-collar workers (6.5%).
How are unemployed blue-collar workers and low-level retail workers faring under the so-called jobless recovery? Based upon what some of my students tell me about their situations, the answer to this question appears to be “not well.”
Take the single male student who lost his low-waged job and lived out of his car for several weeks after his landlord lost his apartment building to foreclosure. “I had to make several trips to the welfare office to apply for general assistance. Then my car broke down. It cost me $95.00 to get it repaired, which took all the money I had. Then it broke down again,” he said. A first generation college student who had been an “A” student in a former class of mine, this student struggled to pass the midterm exam in a class he is taking with me this semester. Not surprisingly, given his economic problems, this student says it has been difficult for him to attend early morning classes and to focus on his school work.
Or consider the student who once drove for UPS. After losing his job, this man, his wife, and two children lost their home, moved in with relatives, and almost had their car repossessed. Disclosing that he had forgone back surgery and was now utilizing food pantries because of his limited income, this student asked me after class one day how people “kept from getting depressed over the social problems we had been discussing in class” (e.g., joblessness, hunger, and poverty).
Or the divorced mother of grown children who is doing well in class, but who worries about how she will survive, keep her house, and remain in school when her already extended unemployment benefits expire at the end of April. And then there are the students who indicate that they and/or relatives have descended from working class to poor to destitute following long-term layoffs from the General Motors plant in Lordstown, Ohio. And most recently, the daughter of one of my students, herself a divorced mother, attempted suicide, in part because of family stress resulting from joblessness and economic hardship.
For these largely working-class students and their families, life under the current recession has “been no crystal staircase.” And some policy analysts state that the potential side effects of their (and others’) long-term joblessness , including poverty, mental illness, social disengagement, and diminished educational opportunities, will affect all of us well into the future. For these students, their families, and for many of us who have been waiting for the current administration to make good on the campaign promise of more higher paying, long-term jobs, the “beginning of the turn in jobs” that President Obama announced before workers in Charlotte, North Carolina on April 2 cannot come soon enough, and hopefully it has not come too late.
Denise Narcisse, Center for Working-Class Studies