The New York Times tells a sadly familiar story
...It has been a painful slide. A five-year spell of unemployment has slowly scrubbed away nearly every vestige of Ms. Barrington-Ward’s middle-class life. She is a 53-year-old college graduate who worked steadily for three decades. She is now broke and homeless.Ms. Barrington-Ward describes it as “my journey through hell.” She was laid off from an administrative position at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2008; she had earned about $50,000 that year. With the recession spurring employers to dump hundreds of thousands of workers a month and the unemployment rate climbing to the double digits, she found that no matter the number of résumés she sent out — she stopped counting in the thousands — she could not find work.“I’ve been turned down from McDonald’s because I was told I was too articulate,” she says. “I got denied a job scrubbing toilets because I didn’t speak Spanish and turned away from a laundromat because I was ‘too pretty.’ I’ve also been told point-blank to my face, ‘We don’t hire the unemployed.’ And the two times I got real interest from a prospective employer, the credit check ended it immediately.”For Ms. Barrington-Ward, joblessness itself has become a trap, an impediment to finding a job. Economists see it the same way, concerned that joblessness lasting more than six months is a major factor preventing people from getting rehired, with potentially grave consequences for tens of millions of Americans.The long-term jobless, after all, tend to be in poorer health, and to have higher rates of suicide and strained family relations. Even the children of the long-term unemployed see lower earnings down the road.The consequences are grave for the country, too: lost production, increased social spending, decreased tax revenue and slower growth. Policy makers and academics are now asking whether an improving economy might absorb those workers in time to prevent long-term economic damage.“I don’t think we know the answer,” said Jesse Rothstein, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley. “But right now, I think everybody’s worst fears are coming true, as far as we can tell.”Soon after we first talked in October, Ms. Barrington-Ward left her sister’s house in Ohio, where she had crashed for six weeks, and went back to Boston and filed her bankruptcy paperwork. She contacted a headhunter. “I’ve got to get a job,” she said. “I just have to.” She had two job interviews lined up and her fingers crossed.Long-term joblessness — the kind that Ms. Barrington-Ward and about four million others are experiencing — is now one of the defining realities of the American work force....
Except for gender and being homeless, Ms. Barrington-Ward's story is nearly identical to my own, right down to our ages.
When Ms. Barrington-Ward and I got on the Big Career Escalator years ago, we believed certain things to be true because we could see them in operation all around us. Usually, honest labor had value. Tangible value. So did persistence. So did excellence. And even if you were kneecapped by bad breaks or bad times or bad people, after you got banged up and bounced downhill once or twice, you got up again and worked your way back into the labor force.
Of course you could get a job -- a real job -- if you set your mind to it.
Of course you could.
But while we were very busy working those hard, long hours -- while we were excelling at what we did -- someone set fire to all the rules and burned all the maps.
Suddenly, no, you cannot get back into the workforce.
No, we will not tell you why.
Try as hard was you like. Beat your brains out until it finally becomes clear that you will never have a full-time job with bennies again.
That's the new reality: the quiet, lethal, zombie apocalypse no one prepared you for and which swarms over you and takes you down by sheer weight of numbers. Which, by the way, leads us to the other ironic difference between Ms. Barrington-Ward's situation and my own: the fact that my last full-time job was helping people exactly like Ms. Barrington-Ward find work.
I spent a long time building a righteous portfolio as a economic development and labor force expert. Over the years I helped thousands of people find work, either directly by helping them think through their options, rework their resumes, learn interviewing skills and find internships and training, or indirectly by setting up and funding programs to get unemployed people like Ms. Barrington-Ward back into decent sustainable work.
I worked with the whole, sad rainbow of the unemployed: kids in tough neighborhoods, young adults without prospects, ex-offenders, single mothers, and the suddenly and unexpectedly jobless like Ms. Barrington-Ward.
So like the physician who gets a bleak medical diagnosis, I am intimately versed enough in the arcanum of labor market data to be in a unique position to understand just how bad things are and how bad they are likely to remain for years to come.
My former profession has blessed me with the knowledge that there really are ways to solve the problem of long-term unemployment and underemployment that would give the millions like Ms. Barrington-Ward back their dignity and economic autonomy.
My understanding of political reality has cursed me with the knowledge that as long as we live in a culture that treats poverty and unemployment as signs of moral depravity, none of those solutions has a prayer of being realized.
Good luck to you, Ms. Barrington-Ward.
Good luck to all the Ms. Barrington-Wards, everywhere.