Working class is middle-class no more

It is a proud boast of the United States that we were the first country, and for a time the only country, in which members of the working class could enjoy a middle class income and standard of living.  Unfortunately this is becoming a thing of the past.

What’s happening is well-described in an article by Andy Kroll on the Tom Dispatch web site.  Here are some highlights.

Sometime in early June — he’s not exactly sure which day — Rick Rembold joined history. That he doesn’t remember comes as little surprise: Who wants their name etched into the record books for not having a job?

For Rembold, that day in June marked six months since he’d last pulled a steady paycheck, at which point his name joined the rapidly growing list of American workers deemed “long-term unemployed” by the Department of Labor. In the worst jobs crisis in generations, the ranks of Rembolds, stranded on the sidelines, have exploded by over 400% — from 1.3 million in December 2007, when the recession began, to 6.8 million this June. The extraordinary growth of this jobless underclass is a harbinger of prolonged pain for the American economy.

This summer, I set out to explore just why long-term unemployment had risen to historic levels — and stumbled across Rembold. A 56-year-old resident of Mishawaka, Indiana, he caught the unnerving mix of frustration, anger, and helplessness voiced by so many other unemployed workers I’d spoken to. “I lie awake at night with acid indigestion worrying about how I’m going to survive,” he said in a brief bio kept by the National Employment Law Project, which is how I found him. I called him up, and we talked about his languishing career, as well as his childhood and family. But a few phone calls, I realized, weren’t enough. In early August I hopped a plane to northern Indiana.

Long-term unemployment is 26 weeks or more; this chart shows unemployment 99 weeks or more

In job terms, my timing couldn’t have been better. I arrived around lunchtime, and was driving through downtown South Bend, an unremarkable cluster of buildings awash in gray and brown and brick, when my cell phone rang. Rembold’s breathless voice was on the other end. “Sorry I didn’t pick up earlier, man, but a friend just called and tipped me off about a place up near the airport. I’m fillin’ up my bike and headin’ up there right now.” I told him I’d meet him there, hung a sharp U-turn, and sped north.

Twenty minutes later, I pulled into the parking lot of a modest-sized aircraft parts manufacturer tucked into a quiet business park. Ford and Chevy trucks filled the lot, most backed in. Rembold roared up soon after on his ’99 Suzuki motorcycle. Barrel-chested with a thick neck, his short black hair was flecked with gray, and he was deeply tanned from long motorcycle rides with his girlfriend Terri. “They didn’t even advertise this job,” he told me after a hearty handshake. Not unless you count the inconspicuous sign out front, a jobless man’s oasis in the blinding heat: “NOW HIRING: Bench Inspector.”

His black leather portfolio in hand, Rembold took a two-sided application from a woman who greeted us inside the tiny lobby. He filled it out in minutes, the phone numbers, names, dates, and addresses committed to memory, handed it to the secretary, and in a polite but firm tone asked to speak with someone from management. While we waited, he pointed out the old Studebaker factories in a black-and-white sketch of nineteenth century South Bend on the wall, launching into a Cliffs Notes history of industry in this once-bustling corner of the Midwest.

A manager finally emerges with Rembold’s application in hand. Rembold rushes to explain away the three jobs he had listed in the “previous employers” section — stints at a woodworking company, motorcycle shop, and local payday lender.  They’re not, he assures the man, indicative of his skills; they’re not who he is. You see, he rushes to add, he’s been in manufacturing practically his entire life, a hard and loyal worker who made his way up from the shop floor to sales and then to management. That kind of experience won’t fit in three blank spots on a one-page form. Unswayed, the manager thanks him formulaically for applying.

If the company’s interested, the manager says — and it feels like a kiss-off even to me — they’ll be in touch, and before we know it we’re back out in the smothering heat of an Indiana summer. Rembold tucks his portfolio into one of the Suzuki’s leather saddlebags. “Well, that’s pretty standard,” he says, his tone remarkably matter-of-fact. “At least I got to talk to somebody. You’re lucky to get that anymore.”

via Tomgram.

Kroll went on to provide economic context – the decline of manufacturing in the Midwest, the mortgage crisis that hinders people such as Rembold from pulling up stakes and moving elsewhere, the decreasing likelihood that an unemployed worker his age will ever get a job in his field again,  and the statistics about what long-term unemployment does to mental health, family life and the prospects for the next generation.

Rembold [worked] … 18 years with Architectural Wood Company (AWC), an Elkhart-based manufacturer of wood products used to outfit RVs and conversion vans. He’s made handcrafted tables, faceplates, valences, and overhead consoles, usually from oak or maple, finishing them with the gloss that gives Kimball grand pianos and Fender guitars their shine.

But by the 1990s and 2000s, his line of work looked to be headed the way of the 8-track tape. The conversion van industry was sinking. RV manufacturers had begun replacing wood with cheaper plastics and vinyl-wrapped plywood. (At an RV show we visited, Rembold could step inside a vehicle and determine by smell alone if the manufacturer used the real thing or not.) Orders plummeted at AWC. By early 2006, the company’s financial health was so dire that the owner, a good friend of Rembold’s, let him go. A few years later, the company itself folded.

Rembold then caromed from one job to the next: selling used cars and motorcycles, driving a semi truck, working behind six inches of bulletproof glass as a teller at Check$mart. He briefly ended up back in RVs, supervising employees sewing tents for campers, and then, last winter, temped at a struggling wood shop. That was his last job.  After the holidays, he was never called back.

Like millions in his predicament, Rembold knows his chances of finding a decent-paying job doing what he loves decrease with each temporary, non-manufacturing job he’s taken. What doesn’t fit on a resume — and so frustrates him most — is his adaptability, if only he could convince an employer of it.  College degree or not, certification or not, he insists, he’s always adapted to new settings. “Could I do construction? Hell, yeah, I could do it. I could measure in metric, in standard; I’d correct cutting mistakes, do it all. I just can’t get anyone to let me do it.”

Kroll cited statistics that show for older workers, the more education you have, the less likely it is you’ll find a job., and the higher up into the middle class you’ve gotten, the bigger hit you’ll take in income.

In the early evening, Rembold and I holed up in his office, a small room off the main hallway with a computer, two desks, and countless framed photos. Rembold clicked open a folder on his Internet browser labeled “Careers” and walked me through his daily online job-hunting routine. He checks half-a-dozen job boards regularly, though openings tend to pay only in the $8- to $10-an-hour range. He rejects most of those out of hand.

“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.

His friends have suggested selling his house and moving somewhere smaller and cheaper, maybe renting for a while, but that’s the last thing he wants. It’s that self-respect again. He’s already sold off one motorcycle and various musical instruments, and he and Terri now skip the big vacations that were part of their past life. Which isn’t to say that Rembold currently lives like a monk.  He still has the big screen in the basement, the DVD collection, the video-game systems for when the grandkids visit, a life’s worth of possessions from decades of earning good money. “Why should you have to give up your home?” he wanted to know. “It’s so unbelievable to me that I don’t even want to think about it. I’m in denial.”

People such as Rembold embody what once was considered the American national character – enterprising, capable, self-reliant, hard-working, adaptable, persevering.  What kind of a society has no use for somebody like him?

What does President Obama have to say to people like him?  Sarah Palin?  Ben Bernanke?  The Tea Party?  MoveOn?

The article is well worth reading on its entirety.  Click on Tomgram for the complete article.  Click on Andy Kroll for his home page and more of his articles. Click on Tom Dispatch for the web site on which the article was published.  I first found the article on the  American Conservative web log.

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5 Responses to “Working class is middle-class no more”

  1. Matzpen Says:

    Rochester NY is an example of what the “Great Recession” has done to America. But it’s an example of how regular people can fight back with the successful strike of Mott’s workers against a proposed pay cut.
    http://sherrytalksback.wordpress.com/2010/10/17/our-not-so-great-depression/

    Like

  2. David Damico Says:

    Can you site where you found the info below…”Kroll cited statistics that show for older workers, the more education you have, the less likely it is you’ll find a job., and the higher up into the middle class you’ve gotten, the bigger hit you’ll take in income.”

    Like

  3. philebersole Says:

    Here is the key paragraph from the article:

    So who are these unfortunate or unlucky people? Long-term unemployment, research shows, doesn’t discriminate: no age, race, ethnicity, or educational level is immune. According to federal data, however, the hardest hit when it comes to long-term unemployment are older workers — middle aged and beyond, folks like Rick Rembold who can see retirement on the horizon but planned on another decade or more of work. Given the increasing claims of age discrimination in this recession, older Americans suffering longer bouts of joblessness may not in itself be so surprising. That education seemingly works against anyone in this older cohort is. Nearly half of the long-term unemployed who are 45 or older have “some college,” a bachelor’s degree, or more. By contrast, those with no education at all make up just 15% of this older category. In other words, if you’re older and well educated, the outlook is truly grim.

    http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175304/tomgram:_andy_kroll,_the_face_of_an_american_lost_generation/

    http://www.amconmag.com/blog/middle-class-no-more/

    Here are facts and figures on the educational level of the long-term unemployed

    http://calculatedriskimages.blogspot.com/2010/07/table-long-term-unemployed.html

    http://www.calculatedriskblog.com/2010/07/older-more-educated-workers-have.html

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  4. philebersole Says:

    Here is the paragraph that says that the higher up you are in the middle class, the worse your income loss.

    In one study, male Pennsylvania workers with high seniority experienced a 50% to 100% spike in mortality rate in the first year after job loss. The life expectancies of those laid off after age 40 decreased by one to one-and-a-half years. In the long run, these laid-off Pennsylvanians suffered a 15% to 20% reduction in earnings. Those hardest hit in terms of lifelong earnings, economists found, were not low-skilled laborers or highly skilled wealthy elites, but workers who had managed to forge a middle-class lifestyle.

    Kroll doesn’t provide a link to that study, nor a more specific reference.

    Here are some more links referenced in the article.

    The Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Situation Survey

    http://bls.gov/news.release/empsit.nr0.htm

    CBS News report on age discrimination

    http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2009/04/14/usnews/whispers/main4944750.shtml

    Wall Street Journal report on defaulting home mortgage holders

    http://blogs.wsj.com/developments/2010/09/13/plan-offers-hedge-on-strategic-default/

    A study showing that job retraining has little impact

    Click to access Workforce%20Investment%20Act%20Non-Experimental%20Net%20Impact%20Evaluation%20-%20Final%20Report.pdf

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  5. philebersole Says:

    Here are some more links to information on long-term unemployment

    http://voices.washingtonpost.com/ezra-klein/2010/11/the_long-term_scarring_of_hyst.html#more

    http://voices.washingtonpost.com/ezra-klein/2010/10/column_an_ugly_word_for_an_ugl.html

    http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/11/05/study-longterm-unemployme_n_779743.html

    http://www.palegalaid.net/news/palawhelporg-news/nelp-study-shows-long-term-unemployment-cuts-across-all-industries-and-demogr

    http://www.walletpop.com/blog/2010/10/27/the-trauma-of-long-term-unemployment-losing-your-job-is-just-th/

    http://www.pewtrusts.org/uploadedFiles/wwwpewtrustsorg/Reports/Economic_Mobility/PEW-Unemployment%20Final.pdf?n=15

    Click to access mass_layoffs_1982.pdf

    Contrarian views (which I don’t agree with)

    http://www.businessweek.com/managing/content/sep2010/ca2010098_547992.htm

    http://www.time.com/time/printout/0,8816,1953704,00.html

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