Growth Statistics Don't Mean Anything If You Can't Find a Job
Columnists get complaints. After my last column (which argued that maybe the economy is better than we say), I got one from Alice Lang of Spartanburg, South Carolina. She accused me (politely) of ignoring the long-term unemployed, of which she is one.
After our conversation, I asked her to put her thoughts in an email. Here's what she wrote, slightly edited. It's a powerful counterpoint for me and, I think, for readers. (Note: Lang, an advocate for the long-term unemployed, made similar complaints to a Forbes columnist in 2015.)
Dear Mr. Samuelson,
I don't think you fully understand what it is like to be a well-educated American who has been shut out of the economy. Unfortunately, there are thousands like me who have been unable to restart careers after the Great Recession and are facing frustration and despair as long-term unemployment drags on and on.
I am 54. My background includes a Master's degree in history and a Certificate in Teaching English as a second language (ESL). I have worked as a journalist and was an ESL instructor for five years at a local college before my job was downsized in 2014 due to budget cuts. Since then, I have been unable to find full-time work, even though I have been diligently networking and applying for jobs. I currently write a monthly business column for The Spartanburg Herald-Journal (for free) about employment issues and also write contracts to try to stay solvent.
Although I agree that our economic expectations were raised during the 1990s' boom, I don't think it is a false expectation for Americans to want good-paying, full-time jobs. Unfortunately, many of the 14 million jobs created (since the employment low-point), which you mention in your column, are low-wage, part-time service jobs which are not what people need in order to support themselves and their families. In Spartanburg, very few white-collar jobs have been created. Instead, the new jobs are in fast-food restaurants and distribution centers, which are popping up everywhere due to our low cost of land.
Every day, I read articles from national newspapers, and I am continually dismayed and angered by journalists that accept without question the government statistics of glowing successes in job creation. Whatever happened to investigative journalism? Why aren't reporters looking beyond the statistics to the thousands of real people still suffering from long-term unemployment?
The anger driving this election cycle comes from voters in financial distress. The media is misinformed when they state that only blue-collar workers and uneducated people supported the anti-establishment candidates Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. People in the middle class, who are being pushed into poverty, also supported them.
I care deeply about long-term unemployment because I know first-hand the damage it inflicts on a person's health and well-being. I am very concerned that none of our leaders will admit to the severity of the issue. In past recessions, having a college degree gave one an edge to get back to work. This time, members of the well-educated middle class have been left on the sidelines. As one of the long-term unemployed, I can tell you that we feel voiceless and invisible.
It's hard not to be moved. But it's also worth remembering that the employment situation has improved.
The basic statistics are these: In June, there were nearly 2 million workers who had been unemployed for more than 27 weeks -- the usual definition of long-term joblessness, says the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That was about a quarter of the 7.8 million unemployed. Both figures were down from their peaks. In April 2010, the long-term unemployed totaled 6.8 million, about 44% of the 15.3 million then unemployed.
Still, the numbers are meaningless if you can't find a job.