Faces beyond the numbers of long-term unemployed
Mountain View senior shatters 6-year-old mark
Al Behrman, Associated Press
J.R. Childress is up before the sun, bustling about in the French colonial brick house he built. He helps pack his wife's lunch, downs some eggs or cereal for breakfast, pores over online and newspaper job listings and hopes — even prays — this will be the day when his fortunes turn around.
He's determined to stay busy, job or no job, for sanity's sake. Maybe he'll help a neighbor. Exercise. Or check out computer blueprints of construction projects around Winston-Salem, N.C., to stay connected to the world where he thrived for three decades. Childress has been laid off twice since late 2009, most recently for 10 months.
"Every day is a struggle," he says in a soft drawl. "The struggle is the unknown. You've worked your way up the ladder and you get to a point in life and a position in work where you're comfortable ... then all of a sudden everything goes away. It's like being thrown into a hole and you're climbing to get up, but it's greased. There's no way of getting out."
The frustrations of one 53-year-old North Carolina man are multiplied millions of times over across time zones and generations in a country still gripped by economic anxiety, despite increasing signs of recovery. And they resound in a presidential campaign pitting an incumbent defending his economic record against GOP opponents who are attacking it.
Unemployment in January was at its lowest level in three years — 8.3 percent — and 1.8 million jobs were added last year, compared with about 1 million in 2010. But there's still a long way to go: There are 5.6 million fewer jobs than there were when the recession began in late 2007.
About 12.8 million people are out of work and what's especially troubling, according to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, is the large number of long-term unemployed — more than 40 percent have been jobless more than six months.
The long-term unemployed don't fit into any neat category. They're young and old. They have high school diplomas and master's degrees. Some become so discouraged, they stop looking for a time or become mid-life college students. Others find temporary jobs, then return to the jobless rolls for long stretches. In 2011, the average length of being out of work was 39 weeks — about nine months.
But statistics tell only part of the story. They don't gauge the despair of a thirtysomething office manager who has stopped counting how many resumes he's sent out. Or the apprehension of a 60-ish tool-and-die maker who lost his job, returned to school, but still can't find work — and doubts he ever will again.
Or the rejection J.R. Childress feels, declaring that unemployment "makes you feel you're not a part of society because you're not earning your way."
Childress started working after high school, first in factories, then in construction, eventually earning a six-figure salary as vice president of operations at a company.
In October 2009, he was laid off when road construction and building projects came to a near halt. After a year without work, Childress took a huge pay cut to be a construction foreman, but that job ended last April. He's convinced he has two strikes against him: his age and lack of college degree.
"I'm putting out resumes, but they're going into a black hole," he says. Prospective employees, he says "want 33, not 53. ... They say, 'We really like you, but if we spend our time training you, when construction comes back, you're going to leave.'" He pauses, and adds: "That's not paying my bills."
Childress' wife works and their 24-year-old twins are out of college so that eases their financial burden, but he says he asks himself: "'Am I going to be 75 or 80 and not be able to retire? ... What did I do to deserve this? When is it going to turn around for me?'"
Jerome Greene doesn't mince words when he describes life without a steady paycheck for more than three years.
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