Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Are There No Workhouses?

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.


Never.  Ever.

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.


Anonymous said...

Isn't it time to call the 'job creators' utter failures at their supposed purpose..?

...followed by jacking up their tax rates..?

...and charging minimum-wage depots like WalMart for every employee receiving government benefits..?


Kathleen said...

Thank you, Driftglass, for your heartfelt post and spot on analysis. I hope you and your family survived the storms in Illinois - I've been a bit worried about you all.

Anonymous said...

Thank God for Geithner, Summers, Lew, Orszag, Daly and Obama for being the caring, understanding and benevolent neo-liberals that these times so desperately need. Their friends' golden parachutes really appreciate it. Because everyone knows that the budget/economy is like a family so we gotta tighten our belts. Boy that sequester is getting things done too. And don't forget once the TPP is fast tracked good times for all. Huzzah!

Denny Smith said...

Well said. I can only hope that this mass of unemployed reaches some critical mass. Then, and only then, would I expect to see real change.

Anonymous said...


It's not the "job creators" fault. Here's the other part of that, the middle class can't fix this either.

The dirty secret is... we don't need most of humanity anymore. Most jobs are bullshit and have now been mechanized, and the machines are coming for the doctors and lawyers as well. There's little reason for most of humanity to even exist, they just suck up resources. Once major cities and major corporations can get off the electrical grid through renewable energy, there is little reason for the major wealth centers to co-exist with fucks in flyover at all. That's one of the reasons we should push for green energy, we can finally have a two tier energy system and get away from the hicks. As someone in a major city of wealth, I have more in common and consider people in say Paris or Hong Kong to be "my people" that someone just dozens of miles away in hick land.

Plus socialism and communism failed, so there is no "threat" to force people to sacrifice for fear that the dirt people will rise up and choose something else. Even better the modern left won't consider violence and hates it... so much so that they smile while we pass gun control (which is entirely about letting income inequality without the fear of mugging spread in the same cities). So we can ignore the left, and use charges of racism and bigotry to marginalize those on the right who could actually rise up and fight.

The writing is on the wall. With 3d printing and green energy rapidly coming here the world is going to change. We'll have some socially liberal mega cities that are cosmopolitan utopias, and all the fuckers in flyover are going to have to figure out what to do on their own. We'll have the robots and machines to do all the work and we won't need you, and you can protest all you want and we'll just look down and laugh.

Once that Walmart job is... done by robots it's going to look like the good old days. Hell Amazon is already mechanizing more and more of their work force.

Really the last thing has been renewable energy, so bring on solar and wind. Once we have that then the time for the last changes is here. It's funny to realize it's the green movement that will finally give the plutocracy the power to disconnect.

bowtiejack said...

Katherine Graham of the Washington Post said that she used to think that if you worked hard and kept at it, that things worked out. But she came to realize that wasn't true. Amen

Horace Boothroyd III said...

"Except for gender and being homeless, Ms. Barrington-Ward's story is nearly identical to my own, right down to our ages."

Spooky, isn't it?

I'm a fifty year old transman with a Yale degree and a Caltech education. The physicists won't hire me because I am a mathematician; the mathematicians won't hire me because I am a chemist; the chemists won't hire me because I am a physicist. McDonald's won't hire me because with this gold plated resume I'll be traipsing off to some million dollar a year job before I can be trained up to ask "would you like fries with that?"

As you point out, the way it was supposed to work was you bust your butt to become the best scientist you could be and there would be a job waiting for you at the other end of the pipeline. Well that contract was broken long ago. I stuck to my knitting while the greedheads swindled fortunes out of the most productive economy the world has ever known, but now we don't do anything more important than making smartphones for the cool kids so I can barely scrape together enough money to eat. You can google it, not that anything of any value is to be found on the Great Gazoogle.

You are God Damned Right that the long term unemployed have strained family relationships and an increased suicide rate.

Anonymous said...

I am a 54 year old engineer, the stories are quite familiar. I went to the hospital with an ulcer and just got the $6,000 bill. I had enough cash left to buy a 9MM and some hollow points. My last day is cold and sunny and the mountains are displaying all their glory. Thanks Drifty for being one of the last honest human beings in the country, we really appreciate it.

Lumpy Lang said...

Я ненавижу капиталистическую систему!

And that was back when there were still coalmining jobs!

BlindRobin said...

This is the club to which you and I belong Mr. Driftglass. Good and tragic company wer too.

OBS said...

DG, your writing is amazing and the fact that you have been out of work for so long is just more proof that "excellence" has no real value in the American workforce anymore, sadly.

As to "Geese":

The dirty secret is... we don't need most of humanity anymore. Most jobs are bullshit and have now been mechanized, and the machines are coming for the doctors and lawyers as well. There's little reason for most of humanity to even exist, they just suck up resources. Once major cities and major corporations can get off the electrical grid through renewable energy, there is little reason for the major wealth centers to co-exist with fucks in flyover at all. That's one of the reasons we should push for green energy, we can finally have a two tier energy system and get away from the hicks. As someone in a major city of wealth, I have more in common and consider people in say Paris or Hong Kong to be "my people" that someone just dozens of miles away in hick land.

Yes, truly. All you need is your magic energy source and farming robots and you can live free of those moochers off in Galt's Gulch.

Piss off.

driftglass said...

Anon @10:52 AM

Email me at driftglass99 AT gmail dot com immediately and let's talk.

RoninMichigan said...

Happy Holidays DG. Thank you for this. Unfortunately the "job creators" do not share this perspective.

Normally i only submit comment on your humorous takedowns, but this essay hit close to home, very close to home.

Frobisher said...

Dear Anonymous commenting at 10:52 AM:

Before you use your new 9MM on yourself, please call the suicide prevention hotline at 1-800-784-2433. We don't need your death to help us make a point. We need you continuing to speak up to expose the fraud which is the corporate and government response to the financial disaster. At least talk to a counselor and find a caring perspective before you make an irreversable decision.


Anonymous said...

It's true that the elites by and large don't think the rest of us deserve to live. They do worship Ayn Rand and her gospel of selfishness, but that same elevation of selfishness is their undoing. They are constantly tripping over each other's agendas.

For instance: Geesey talks up green power as what will allow the elite Randroids to finally break free of societal infrastructure for their own Galt's Gulch. I invite him to ponder the power of Big Oil in pretty much every place but China. The US could have been totally energy independent by 2000, but Big Oil made sure that didn't happen, to the detriment of all other industries. (Note that China, which ten years ago didn't have a solar or wind power industry, is now the world leader in producing both because the Chinese government has an actual energy policy that operates in the national interest. Most of it was for export, but recently, in the interest of providing price supports, China has taken the products of its solar and wind power factories and installed them across the Chinese landscape. This is a good thing, as it will accelerate China's weaning itself off of coal.)

As for commnunism and socialism, I've yet to see an actual nation-state that did either. What Russia and China did, and still do, was and is state-sponsored capitalism, where the state actually has an economic policy and acts as if the national interest mattered. Communism is where the workers themselves control their workplaces and the conditions existing therein, the means of production if you will.

What happened in Russia and China is that while the Russian boyars and Chinese mandarins had their huge estates taken from them and put into the greater economy -- and the injection of all that wealth into the Soviet and Chinese economies took these states from laughingstock to superpower status inside of twenty years, a status both still have today -- the workers and peasants themselves were not given any real measure of control over their own fates. All that happened as far as that went was that their boyar and noble overseers were swapped for commissar and party overseers. True, the general living standards of the mass of Russians and Chinese did improve dramatically, but they never were allowed direct control of the means of production.

Kathleen said...

Dear Anonymous at 10:52 AM: Please email Driftglass and call suicide hotline as Frobisher urged you to do. Trust me, I've been so depressed sometimes I have thought of taking my life so you are so not alone in feeling despair. But we cannot let these fuckers win. I am sending you good thoughts (I do believe in such things). And please reach out. There are people who care.

jurassicpork said...

As an unflinching liberal, it's incumbent on me to tell others and myself, "You need to read this article." But since it could've been written by me, someone also in his 50's and unemployed for upwards of five years, it's heartbreaking and incredibly discouraging to read this, especially as I don't have DG's professional pedigree or an MIT education.

Two weeks ago tomorrow, I sat at my last interview at a place to which I've applied three or four times since 2009. It's a couple of miles from my house, I have extensive experience in manufacturing. They said it would take them a week to make up their minds. Only five guys responded to their ad and one other consented to an interview. So I got rejected once again only this time I was competing with a very, very short list. And I did everything right, all the way down to the resume they've already seen three times and the nice shirt and tie.

What Drifty could've also said is that companies have two great options: They can either outsource the labor overseas or to right to work states or, if they need homegrown help, they can always hire temps. The temp agency mill is one of the slimiest rackets this side of bestiality porn and payday lenders. More often than not, they lead you on with promises of regular employment, temp to perm, blah blah blah. But there's a catch: Right around the time of 9/11, their clients insisted on getting involved in the vetting process without actually taking the risk of doing any of the hiring.

Now, they have the leisure to look at resumes sent to them by temp agencies and saying, "No" to virtually all of them. Prior to 9/11, there were no interviews. You applied to a temp agency and with a bit of luck you'd get sent straight to the job site. No more. Now their clients get first refusal rights on interviews.

The place to which I'd applied 13 days ago is one of the very factories in MA that doesn't temp out.

And DG's right: Being unemployed longterm makes you unfit for work. That big, 50+ month-long gap at the end of your resume is in itself a reason for them not to hire you, by their reasoning. And it's real easy, if you're a gainfully-employed hiring manager with an actual career, to look a such gaps as evidence of laziness, unhirability or moral turpitude. And, as Ms. Barrington-Ward points out, if those barriers don't trip you up, a credit check will after years of unemployment has sledgehammered your credit rating.

I never had the slightest confidence that Obama would lead us out of this unemployment mess and I can say with some bitter satisfaction I was right. Mrs. JP and I don't know what will happen to us after the holidays, especially in light of the fact blog readership, hence donations, are drastically down and since we just lost our biggest benefactor.

Meanwhile, unemployment is a reason to not hire. Some asshole state rep in Hawaii is smashing the property of the homeless with a sledgehammer and many major cities have actually made feeding the homeless a criminal offense.

What we're seeing is a carefully, if loosely, coordinated attempt at economic genocide if not outright genocide. We have criminalized indigence, we have criminalized charity and altruism itself yet put the jiggling pusses of robber barons like Lloyd Blankfein on the cover of Forbes as a "captain of industry." These are now our values.

Btw, drifty, unless your commenter above has a sick sense of humor, I think one of your readers is about to commit suicide.

Anonymous said...

Depression is a horrible and crippling thing, but things can get better. There are people out here who care about you. It takes time. Depression isn't cured magically overnight but the first rule about being in a deep hole is stop digging. You can recover from this. There is help out there

Anonymous said...


Talk to someone before you do that. You're not alone.

-- Nonny Mouse

n1ck said...

Anon: It's obvious that no one here wants you do to anything you can't undo.

Geese: Galt's gulch doesn't exist. And if it does, I can guarantee that the only thing you'll find there is the body of Galt, and possibly the idiots like him.

The desperation of Anon, and the outright hatred of people like me, will make sure of that.

So, hope hope hope away that the ultra elite NOVA/DC pseudo-liberals will get to have low taxes and social freedom, but man does that 2nd Amendment run both ways!

Don't fear communism.

Fear the hundreds of millions of people with guns who you've fucked over or let get fucked over.

Have a great day!

dinthebeast said...

In 2008 I was working 13 hour shifts that started at midnight for three straight months after the company I had finally gotten hired at was bought and relaunching under another name and new ownership. There was a lot of stress and pressure as we all sort of jockeyed for our positions in the new company.
One evening I woke up having suffered a stroke. I haven't worked since. Nor will I again.
In 2009 I got on SSDI, and it is the only income myself and my friend who takes care of me have. We are now in our 50s, and she has been trying everything she can think of for 5 years now to get work. When you're poor, 50, and unemployed NO ONE will hire you. My SSDI keeps us alive, but barely. We've had to move twice, this last time to a place where people aren't really supposed to live, the city took our car over parking tickets, and we're paying $800.00 in payments to regain access to our storage.
I used to think of Social Security as one of the places that a quarter of my paycheck disappeared to, but now it is survival, plain and simple.
Oh, and Geese: I don't know if you consider Oakland "flyover" or not, but I do know that nobody I know gives a rat's ass what you or your asshole friends think about us. We don't easily automate out of existence, and we re-elect Barbara Lee reliably every other year.

-Doug in Oakland

Monster from the Id said...

Geese imitates a member of the callous elite too well; he is being mistaken for one of them.

I guess next time he needs to remember the [snark][/snark] tags. :P

Mister Roboto said...

One major problem with Geese Howard's "Galt's Gulch" fantasy (putting aside for a moment that running an entire economy on renewable energy is something of a chimaera), is that a certain amount of economic activity is necessary to maintain all that automation. Yes, automation is the wave of the future and will put a hell of a lot of people out of work, but the very attempt by the randroid plutocrats to decouple from the rest of the economy is what will make the whole thing fall apart. This would be true during a period of sustained economic growth, and it will prove especially true in an age of contraction and energy/ resource scarcity.

I would add to Jurassic Pork's critique that "captains of industry" such as Lloyd Blankfein engaged in much criminal acitivity that crashed the economy five years ago, and nothing has been done to bring these criminals to justice. But try feeding the homeless? Go to jail, go directly to jail. It was a fitting irony that the movie version of Glengarry Glenn Ross came out in 1992, because it was around that time (at least in my admittedly subjective perception) that the whole country turned into Glengarry Glenn Ross.

Monster from the Id said...

Caveat: I have never seen GGR, so I may misunderstand what Mr. Roboto was talking about--but I assume he means the return of the USA to 19th-Century Social Darwinism.

If so, it may have been completed in 1992, but I saw it begin in 1980, if not earlier.

Anonymous said...

You need a place to stay I bet we could put you up here. High plains desert ain't pretty, but it is prettier than a hollow point.
email at

Shorebreak said...

We have been living under an oligarchy since that actor fellow became president and introduced the country to the system called 'Reaganomics'. The top ten percent have 81% to 94% of stocks, bonds, trust funds, and business equity, and almost 80% of non-home real estate. Since financial wealth is what counts as far as the control of income-producing assets, we can say that just 10% of the people own the United States of America. The greatest transfer of wealth in history, facilitated by the Federal Reserve with it's endless QE and zero interest rate policy (ZIRP).

Anonymous said...

@anon 2:26PM
Anarchism is where the workers themselves control their workplaces and the conditions existing therein, the means of production if you will. Communism has been state sponsored capitalism since its beginnings.

Anonymous said...

Please don't go. We need you! Call me at 1-800-273-8255

~ Sil in Corea said...

I was unemployed and in my 50s from 1994 to 2001. At my son's suggestion, I applied for a job in Korea, teaching English, since I had a college degree. I've been here for 12 years now, took my SS at age 70 and live more comfortably than I can in the U.S. The job window here has closed, but there are many other countries who want English teachers who are native speakers. Turkey is the best, and (if you are a man) some of the Gulf states and Indonesia.

robyn Ryan said...

Try the George Scott version. Very relevant.

Anonymous said...

I rarely leave comments or offer advise, but something made me go back to this page and share some thoughts.
After working for the same employer for 28 years, they finally gave me the pink slip. Now I'm 57, unemployed, divorced, and living off my dwindling savings. So I can relate to some of the posting I've read here. But, here's some information or knowledge I've recently come across.
1. We are not our jobs, careers, education levels, assets, etc. We are sovereign beings with a right to exist. There are a hundreds of conspiracy theories blame our social problems on alien agendas, the Illuminati, the 1%. They say we are being programmed to depression, despair, and hopelessness. You must realize that you are not your 'net value.' You have a soul, spirit, and physical body and you can make a difference in this world.
2. Be flexible and adapt. The United States was the top dog after WWII, but now it's an empire in decline. Don't worry about it, this is the natural order of civilization. Empires come and go, who needs them?
3. Become as self reliant as possible. I'm learning hydroponics, off grid living techniques, and will eventually have a mortgage free property. We can't expect the government assistance to last forever. The system is bankrupt and the generosity of our fellow man is waning.
4. Take a look at some of the new and exciting ideas being presented. People are putting together moneyless communities. Time banks offer work exchange opportunities. You can build a tiny home or live for free in a household that needs a care sitter.
Life is attitude. I admit my attitude has been gloomy lately, but I'm starting to make a shift. Much love to you. GB in FL.

Jenonymous said...

Tardy to the party but wanted to chime in.

Outtaworko 18 months, dealing with a complex root canal that has required 3 visits so far to the endodontist, and just broke my leg. Badly. So, praying that the temp filling doesn't come out while I convalesce.

Insurance runs out in 2 months. I have too much cash in the bank for food stamps.

Yet, I will press on until my last dollar. After that, the Vicodan that I've been accumulating for my 2 recent medical conditions--ironically, the ONLY cheap part of my treatment--may need to be put to use with a bottle of vodka.

I mean, right now, my fucking RETIREMENT plan is Smith & Wesson; I can't imagine not working again this early on.

In the meantime, I see stupid young shiny know-nothings fuck up every place that I have ever worked in the past while the fatcats float above in their airships, immune to the chaos below...

Happy Thanksgiving anyway.

I sure do miss Gilly on days like this.

ginardo napoli said...


we are here today not because of the natural order of civilizations, but because of an orchestrated takeover of our government by money. Decisions have been influenced by the opinions and philosophical belief systems that are paid for by large collections of money from very wealthy institutions and individuals.

Our current predicaments are not "blaming social problems" on conspiracy theories or illuminati. Real people who are connected to wall street and to various politicians and various corrupt institutions have decided to pursue bad policy from which there is no consequences. Large corporations and their hired jackals are polluting without consequence, or monopolizing and eliminating competition from large sectors of the economy. This real. The result is a lot of unemployed and lots of social problems.

So are we to all just go meditate and find are true inner self in a moneyless economy? Bartering services? Are country is being disentegrated because of the short-sighted foolish avarice of the oligarcy, and you want me to not worry about it? Empires go up and down, but you are mistaken in that application of Gibbons. We are not talking about America as an empire. Empire is never once in the entire constitution. What does empire have to do with anything? America is our country. It's not an empire. America as a nation, our country, one nation under god indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Why are changing the words? What does your country mean to you?

P.S: You gave yourself away with the false modesty in the first paragraph. You rarely leave comments, ... puhleese

Arliss Bunny said...

Driftglass -

I've been meaning to write to you about this for some time. I'm an employer (I own a small manufacturing company) and I have a different perspective. Our company has found that when we hire older employees they require substntially less training, are, generally, vastly more reliable, have already established a strong work ethic and bring with them all kinds of outside thinking and processes which have improved our productivity, We pay a living wage, health insurance and a full benefits package. In the last three months we have filled three positions and all of them with people who were long-term unemployed because (and I REALLY can not figure out why other employers can't figure this out) the long-term unemployeed are happy to have a good job and come to work every day dying to make a difference and build the company. All the way around it's a win-win deal.

Now, I understand that my company is the exception but I can't figure out why this is the case. Because we hire incredibly skilled, experienced people who show up every day with their brains engaged, we have been able to become dominant in our market, export more than 80% of what we build overseas and soundly beat back foreign cometition. As best I can tell, we have just been using common sense, entrepenurial drive and capitalism. Despite the fact that I am a progressive, we have not been operating as a social services organization. We are a business and our goal is to make money.

Here is what I have been thinking lately however. I think that the Dems, as well as Netroots/DKos etc, need to speak to and organize small business. Small business NEVER benefits from the austerity-based monetary policies of the GOP. I listen to progressive internet-based radio all day (The Professional Left is my fav) and I have to say that the constant pounding by the left on "business" and "corporations" is off-putting. It is one thing for the left to be pounding on BIG business and BIG corporations. That is well-deserved and much needed but when we are all grouped together a serious opportunity is lost. When we, and by "we" I mean "progressives" fail to distinguish between my company and Boeing, we are failing in a variety of ways. We are failing to speak to a large group of voters, we are failing to dynamically promote and encourage "best practices" in a manner which will support the overall goals of the progressive movement, and we are failing to shine a light on and support those small companies who are doing right.

Anyway, that's my two cents. I would love to hear your thoughts.