Looking the other way on job loss

It shocks me that the media has focused so little on joblessness in America. Having weathered it repeatedly with my husband, I know how emotionally difficult job loss can be. My newspaper ran a cartoon this week on the op-ed page that depicted a man who had lost everything in the recent market crash -- including his job and his wife. The implications of this are startling, but I think as a country we are in denial. Job loss is busting up marriages. On the road to that bust-up you'll find the potential for domestic violence, suicide, drugging and drinking to check out of reality. How does no one get this? No one but the people going through it, that is. I read the startling numbers month after month: 263,000 jobs lost in September, for example. The figures are staggering, and mind-numbing. What's worse is the duration: 35.6 percent of the unemployed have been out of work for 27 months or longer. It's not so hard to handle four or six months out of work. But more than two years? A person's self-worth really starts to erode.

I'm surprised that social conservatives -- those who champion families and marriage -- aren't more vocal about these issues.

Each week, as I listen to the big network talk shows, the topics are Afghanistan and health care, Afghanistan and health care. Enough already! The media is hyper-focused on these issues because they are apparently what is occupying President Obama and Congress. A lone exception last week was "Bill Moyers Journal," which interviewed Toledo Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur. She has gone so far as to charge the big banking interests with staging a coup d'etat in America. She claims they have taken over the government, and she urges people to squat in their own homes, rather than allow them to be taken in forecolsures.

So why should any American citizen be kicked out of their homes in this cold weather? In Ohio it is going to be 10 or 20 below zero. Don't leave your home. Because you know what? When those companies say they have your mortgage, unless you have a lawyer that can put his or her finger on that mortgage, you don't have that mortgage, and you are going to find they can't find the paper up there on Wall Street. So I say to the American people, you be squatters in your own homes. Don't you leave. In Ohio and Michigan and Indiana and Illinois and all these other places our people are being treated like chattel, and this Congress is stymied.

Isn't that just great? I wish I could vote for this woman.

Anxious all the time

This economy is making me anxious all the time. It doesn't seem as though it should -- my husband and I are two of the lucky ones who have jobs, and our employers seem to be doing OK. No, it's not really my personal situation that has me anxious. It seems like something in the air. First of all, the sheer number of people laid off is astounding -- 663,000 people lost jobs in March alone, and 3.3 million since October. Those are U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers, so they're probably an under-count. The BLS tends to miss informal work arrangements, people who are discouraged and have stopped looking for work, those who would work more hours if they could, and people who used to have higher-paying jobs.

Every time I think of that number -- 663,000 -- I try to picture all of those people out of work. I really can't. First I come up with a vague image of a tractor rusting in a Midwestern field. Then I picture empty Long Island Rail Road seats as Wall Streeters stay home instead of commuting into NYC. And then I think of how hard it is to be home when you want to work, how much tension it creates.

The other cause of my anxiety is that I feel poorer because of what has happened to my retirement and college savings. We are still shoveling money into these funds, and I have no idea whether that's a foolish thing or not. One theory is that we are "buying low" right now. But is my 401(k) administrator really purchasing stocks? The last time I looked, much of the money had been shifted into bonds. Doesn't this mean that I have "locked in my losses?" I know that I should be more diligent, and maybe take over control of this account myself. But I really don't have any expertise in that. I just signed up to be a journalist in this life. Now, I'm supposed to be picking stocks? Or what? No retirement for me! It's overwhelming.

I can't even get into the college savings stuff. Each of my daughters' accounts has lost about $3,000. What happened to the "magic of compound interest" theory that I was raised on? It's not there any more! There is no more magic. I keep wondering how much debt I will be saddling my children with -- and here's the really crazy part. They are both still in grade school.

Like I said, this anxiety thing is insidious.

Job-seekers outnumber jobs, 3 to 1

More bad news this week for people looking for work: The number of job-seekers outnumbers the jobs available by 3 to 1. This is according to a new report from the Economic Policy Institute, left-leaning Washington think tank. Don't you wonder where they get the number of jobs available? The figure comes from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey.

JOLTS, the acronym for the department that generates this report, says that it counts job openings once a month, on the last business day of the month. The company must be actively recruiting outside candidates, by advertising or interviewing. But the jobs themselves could be part-time, seasonal or short-term. I think that would tend to undercount the types of jobs that most people need -- so 3 to 1 might actually be a very optimistic number. Scary. Also, it appears that JOLTS collects data from "selected establishments" only. There's no further explanation on the website about how JOLTS chooses which employers to survey, or whether they're reaching out to a small sample and then multiplying to get national numbers. I can't imagine that every employer responds to JOLTS every month. Multiplying a small sample multiplies your rate of error. That doesn't fill me with confidence.

I'll send them an e-mail inquiry and report back.

I offer all of this in case you were wondering whether I'm a data geek. The answer is affirmative.

Middle class more vulnerable to financial shock

The Center for American Progress, a self-described non-partisan think-tank that is nonetheless fairly left-wing, has issued a report called "America's Middle Class Still Losing Ground." Authors Christian Weller and Amanda Logan find that middle-class families are less able to weather a financial disaster today than they were as recently as 2000. They write:

--The sharpest deterioration in middle-class financial security is associated with the cost of a medical emergency.

--Drops in personal wealth have contributed to the decline in middle-class financial security. Because house prices started to fall and debt continued to rise in 2007, we also observed the share of families who could weather an unspecified emergency equal to three months of income decrease to 29.4 percent in 2007 from ... 39.4 percent in 2000.

--The share of families who had enough resources to cover a spell of unemployment has declined since 2000. (To 44.1 percent in 2007 from 51 percent in 2000.)

Weller ads in a video presentation that middle-class Americans have been whalloped by a "trifecta" of decline in wealth: a stock market crash in 2001 that is repeating itself in 2008; falling home prices; and high and increasing mortgage levels.

The report's prescription includes a bigger earned income tax credit, easier access to union membership, universal health care and a stronger program of unemployment insurance. At the same time, the Center's David Madland finds that unemployment figures hide some of the job loss that is happening today. Many people are being asked to work fewer hours for less pay. And only 35 percent of people who are unemployed are getting over the hurdles to actually receive unemployment checks.

Madland writes:

The job numbers released today by the Department of Labor provide further evidence that that the economy is not working for most Americans, with new indications that the labor market is likely to remain weak for some time. In July, the economy lost another 51,000 jobs, and unemployment increased to 5.7 percent from 5.5 percent, its highest level since March of 2004. Job losses were widespread, declining in construction, manufacturing and several service industries....

The economy has lost jobs for seven straight months—the longest stretch since the period ending May 2002—shedding 460,000 jobs since January. This is the longest stretch of job loss since the period ending May 2002 – the tail of the last recession....

Not only are people losing jobs, but those with jobs are increasingly likely to have their hours reduced to part-time. The number of people who are working part time involuntarily—predominantly those who have lost hours or cannot find full-time work—jumped to 5.7 million last month, an increase of almost 1.4 million over the last 12 months. And many people who have lost jobs are having significant difficulty finding new ones. The number of people who have been unemployed for 27 weeks or longer increased to 1.7 million people, up from 1.6 million the previous month and 1.3 million the previous July.

... when Congress returns from their August recess, one of the first things they should address are reforms to unemployment insurance. They should temporarily extend the length of time the unemployed can collect benefits, and significantly expand the reach of unemployment insurance. The reason: currently only about 35 percent of those who are unemployed receive unemployment benefits due to structural rigidities in the system that do not take into account new work patterns in the economy.

A trio of books on middle class woes

A wave of books about the dwindling prospects of America's middle class is hitting the shelves. Author Nan Mooney has written "(Not) Keeping up with Our Parents: The Decline of the Professional Middle Class." For the book, she interviewed more than 100 social workers, product managers, college administrators, factory-equipment salesmen and other members of the middle class about their financial lives. Here's what they told her, according to a Q&A with

Most of them earned between $30,000 and $70,000 a year, yet despite good educations and respectable incomes, many still shouldered crushing debts and had serious doubts about their financial futures. They all aspire to basic comforts -- a place to live, reliable healthcare, education for themselves and their children -- but come across as a little bewildered by their seemingly perpetual state of financial insecurity. "As you get older, it becomes less okay to admit that you're struggling," one 42-year-old graphic designer tells Mooney. "People just assume that you must be doing okay. I've noticed that those who are still having trouble start to go underground about their financial lives."

Next up with his concerns about the American middle class is Peter Gosselin, an economics reporter with the Los Angeles Times (or, at least he's with the Times as of this current writing. The newspaper is planning to announce a huge layoff next week, which may have influenced Gosselin's mood as he wrote.)

Gosselin is the author of "High Wire: The Precarious Financial Lives of American Families." The book was reviewed in the New York Times last week.

The author focuses on how much more we feel our financial lives are at risk, according to reviewer Noam Scheiber, who writes:

Americans have seen their financial situations grow far less stable over the last few decades, he reports ....

Scouring the data, Gosselin finds that the income of a middle-class family in the early 1970s typically rose or fell by no more than 17 percent in a given year; today, that range is plus or minus 26 percent. And it’s not just the middle class who’ve seen their incomes fluctuate wildly. The most affluent tenth of the country saw a slightly greater rise in volatility.

The cause of this increased turbulence, Gosselin says, is a changing labor market and a decades-long erosion of the corporate and social safety net. A generation ago, when unemployment relief was more generous, when companies provided liberal health and pension benefits and private insurers weren’t as stingy as they are today, a serious illness or the loss of a job usually wasn’t devastating. Now, such a setback is much more likely to bring economic ruin.

Finally, there is "Strapped" from Tamara Draut, who works at the Demos think tank. Her subtitle is "Why America's 20- and 3-Somethings Can't Get Ahead." That pretty much says it all. Draut, like Mooney, places a lot of blame on the rising cost of college and health insurance. Here's a good link if you want to read more.

Young, unemployed and invisible

New York Times columnist Bob Herbert writes today that the US Labor Department statistics, which are pretty grim by themselves, fail to count anyone under age 24. Herbert says that 4 million young people between 16 and 24 are looking for work but are not reflected in the official jobless figures. This is bad news for society, Herbert writes.

This is the flip side of the American dream. The United States economy, which has trouble producing enough jobs to keep the middle class intact, has left these youngsters all-but-completely behind....

It’s not as if these kids don’t want to work. Many of them search and search until they finally become discouraged. The summer job market, which has long been an important first step in preparing teenagers for the world of work, is shaping up this year as the weakest in more than half a century, according to the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston....

As the ranks of these youngsters grow, so does their potential to become a destabilizing factor in the society.

I love that he gave a nod to the middle class, which I think is in big trouble of disappearing. He ends up by calling on the presidential candidates to figure out how to create full employment, put America back to work. I wonder when things will get bad enough that someone starts to listen.