The Growing Class of Perennially Unemployed

Andy Kroll, in doing an investigative report on the growing list of unemployed and underemployed Americans, takes the case study of Rick Rembold to give a face to the economic struggle of aging middle-class Americans (via TomDispatch):

“Wouldn’t that be better than no job at all?” I ask.

Rembold gnaws on the question. “I can’t afford my home at $8 or $10 an hour,” he finally replies. Right now, he’s getting by on unemployment checks, a small inheritance from his mother that’s rapidly dwindling, and loans from family members. Still, he’d rather keep trolling the job boards in the hopes of finding something offering a living wage. “I’ve got a mortgage to pay, for Christ’s sake,” he told me. The few openings he sees with good pay, however, involve odd hours, dusk-to-dawn shifts that would mean he’d almost never see Terri, whose schedule at an aluminum company in Elkhart is early morning to mid-afternoon.

And then, under the dollar signs lurks something else: self-respect. Unlike his father, Rembold never went to college, and doesn’t consider himself too good for service-sector jobs.  But he visibly agonizes over the fact that, as a 56-year-old man with decades of experience, he’s competing with people half his age for low-wage jobs. After all, as a machine operator fresh out of high school at White Farm Equipment, he earned $8.64 an hour. That was 1976. Adjusted for inflation, that’s equivalent to $42.42 today. No wonder the man’s reluctant to flip burgers or trim hedges for $9 an hour.

[...]

In the end, facing an economy that may never again generate in such quantity the sorts of “middle class” jobs Rembold was used to, what we may be seeing is the creation of a graying class of permanently unemployed (or underemployed) Americans, a genuine lost generation who will never recover from the recession of 2008. As Mike Konczal and Arjun Jayadev of the Roosevelt Institute, a left-leaning think tank, recently wrote, unemployed workers today are more likely to abandon the workforce than find work — something never before seen in four decades’ worth of labor data. “These workers need targeted intervention,” they concluded, “before they become completely lost to the normal labor market.”

In considering inequality and stratification, CC203 students and alumni would do well to ponder cases like this.  How much of Rembold’s struggle is his fault?  How much has to do with market and social forces, and how do we help these people (or do we help them best by not helping at all?)  Feel free to discuss this on the EnCore Facebook group.

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