What follows is an excerpt from "A People's History of the Great Recession," a compilation of HuffPost Politics reporter Arthur Delaney's stories on those hit hardest by the economic crisis. This collection of Arthur's impassioned reporting, putting flesh and blood on the statistics, also marks the debut of HuffPost's entry into e-book publishing , which will allow us to delve deeply into interesting and timely topics. Look for our next title coming later this month. For more on "A People’s History of the Great Recession," check out Arianna’s latest blog post here.
INTRODUCTION: How the Rules Have Changed
On July 17, 2009, Terry Harris of Jonesville, S.C., lost her job as an executive assistant at a promotional products company. The company, she said, went belly up.
"My boss actually cried when I was let go," Harris told me during an interview in May 2011. "I have an excellent letter of recommendation from him."
In other words, Harris said, "It was purely an economic thing." She lost her job through no fault of her own.
What she hadn't figured out was why she was still unemployed and why her husband had been bounced from one wretched low-paying job to another. Why, she asked, if they both finished high school, got some post-secondary education, had solid work histories and held off on having kids, was it such a struggle to pay for things like getting the car fixed and visiting the dentist?
"I think the thing that keeps me going is knowing that we are really lucky, even in spite of the challenges that we are facing," said Harris in an email. "I can't help but feel badly for those that I know are worse off than we are. And I am truly grateful. And knowing that we are not alone helps a great deal, too. But it seems to be getting harder. Harder not to worry, not to cry, not to give up hope. We did everything right, I thought."
She was right: It had gotten harder.
President Obama, in his 2011 State of the Union address, talked about how most people could remember the good old days, when getting a job meant showing up at a factory after finishing high school. "If you worked hard, chances are you’d have a job for life, with a decent paycheck and good benefits and the occasional promotion," the president said, adding that he understood "the frustrations of Americans who’ve seen their paychecks dwindle or their jobs disappear -- proud men and women who feel like the rules have been changed in the middle of the game."
"They're right," Obama continued. "The rules have changed."
Indeed they have. For the past two years, I have written about the unemployment crisis as a reporter for the Huffington Post, interviewing and emailing with hundreds and hundreds of people who didn't understand where they went wrong. This book is about them.
The Great Recession started in December 2007 and technically ended in July 2009, according to the economists. Unofficially, the recession has continued, and it even seemed to be gaining steam halfway through 2011. The government's monthly snapshot of the labor market has consistently shown more than 20 million either out of work or underemployed. And in every snapshot an even scarier percentage of those people has been out of work for six months or longer.
To address the jobs crisis, the Obama administration championed more generous food stamps, unemployment benefits, tax cuts, and health insurance subsidies for layoff victims, among other things. The broader safety net prevented a record poverty rate in 2009, yet it gets no respect in Congress, where Republican and even Democratic lawmakers spent 2010 describing the unemployed as a bunch of lazy drug addicts unworthy of the federal deficit spending lavished on them.
The myth that unemployed workers would rather watch TV than look for jobs helped lawmakers take away much of the expanded safety net, and most of the rest will be rolled up soon as federal spending continues to lose popularity in Washington. In particular, it's likely that extended unemployment benefits will be dropped at the beginning of 2012 in an unprecedented abandonment of the long-term jobless during a weak economy.
The soggy housing market is a huge component of the ongoing crisis, in which millions of people are unable to afford mortgage payments on homes with shrunken values. Homeowner advocates wanted Congress to give bankruptcy judges the authority to reduce mortgage principal. The administration did little to support this policy change, opting instead to put banks in charge of a mortgage modification program that has been an utter disaster.
Of all the people feeling ripped off by the Great Recession and its aftermath, few have a better claim than the ones who complied with the application process for the Home Affordable Modification Program and then discovered that the program itself had put them into foreclosure. It's no wonder Obama could talk about dismal main drags and shuttered factories in his State of the Union speech but couldn't bear to mention the boarded up homes and "Bank Owned" signs that line the streets of many American neighborhoods.
As for Obama's signature accomplishment during his first term, most of the benefits of health care reform will be realized years from now. But the law created one program that launched almost immediately to give insurance to the uninsurable -- people with "pre-existing conditions." The program has literally saved lives, yet, as with the mortgage program, it won't help as many as it could, or as many as the administration said it would.
The long-term unemployed lose their health insurance, their homes, their minds. Yet for some reason, it has seemed the angriest people in America aren't the ones who've been trampled by the economy. Rather, it's the fury of well-off middle-class whites, resentful of the government's safety net, that has received the most media attention.
The millions of unemployed haven't organized or formed giant mobs like they did during economic depressions in the past, thanks largely to the stimulus programs that kept things from getting as bad as they once did. Instead, today's jobless take to the Internet. Between looking for work, they commiserate and swap stories on message boards, shout at reporters on Twitter, and lobby Congress via email. It's not enough to make them a political force, and for that reason their problems won't get solved. But their anger is there. As some of the following stories show, it does spill over occasionally.
Some jobless find solace in the stories of others in similar straits. That's why when I write about unemployment, in my stories I often ask unemployed people to email me and become sources. Knowing how stories of other people's suffering comforted them, they want to return the favor.
The stories occasionally bring victories, like when homeowners wrongly denied mortgage modifications get bank executives' attention through their press shop. More typically, the stories show the powerlessness of individual people -- people who emailed me just because they played by the rules only to discover the rules had changed.
"Good, decent people who worked hard, did everything right, believed in the American Dream have been destroyed," wrote a Californian who said her brother killed himself after job loss collapsed his financial situation.
"On the eve of my 60th birthday and without marketable skills I have no chance of ever finding a job again in the traditional economy," wrote a North Carolinian who'd been out of work nearly two years. "I am determined to survive this horror show. But my survival will not be determined by our broken economy. It’s 'think outside the box' time. Traditional methods obviously won’t work for people like me."
“I did everything right, I played by the rules, I got skills, I excelled in my job, all to no avail," wrote a New Jerseyan who said he lost his job in 2010. "I don't know what I'm going to do. All the years of both parties talking about free trade agreements and how we will retrain America was just a bunch of BS; it was easy to say all that when times were good."
After all this time talking to unemployed people, I have identified a few of the new rules. I must say, they kinda suck. Here they are:
--Don't Be Old
Terri Harris suspected age discrimination was a big reason why she couldn't find work. She wasn't even 40, but she'd developed a keen awareness of her years. She said she and her husband didn't have children because they wanted to wait till they had a more secure financial situation. Under the old rules, after all, age brought economic security for decent people.
"We wanted to wait till we could afford it, and now look -- I'm 39 last month."
And when she applied online for a job at Bojangles Famous Chicken 'n Biscuits early 2011, the application form required her to disclose her date of birth. Several big companies, including Target, Kroger and Home Depot, do the same thing. It's illegal to discriminate by age and to specify an age preference in a job ad, but it's not illegal to ask about age, though employment law experts say doing so does bear a whiff of discrimination.
Workers older than 55 are less likely to lose their jobs, but the average unemployed person older than 55 has been out of worker longer than a year. It's more like 10 months for the average jobless worker younger than 55.
Age discrimination is unbearably obvious to anyone over 50 who's been in the job market for more than a short time, but it's impossible to prove. You can't beat it. That's why it's a rule.
--Don't Be Unemployed
Employers openly discriminate against the unemployed in job postings on sites like craigslist and Monster every day. In 2010, after reporters asked, global phone manufacturer Sony Ericsson claimed its ad that said "NO UNEMPLOYED CANDIDATES WILL BE CONSIDERED AT ALL" was a mistake. The only mistake was that the ad betrayed one company's preference for workers who are wanted over ones who've been twisting the wind for too long.
It's not illegal to have such a rule, but in response to news stories about the phenomenon, state and federal lawmakers in the past year have tried to ban overt discrimination against the unemployed.
--Don't Pin Your Hopes On College
The unemployment rate for college grads is below 5 percent (what economists would call "full employment") and it never got much higher than that during the Great Recession. For high school dropouts, it's closer to 15 percent. So finishing college pays.
But this old rule's been bent. New college grads these days face a huge pile of debt and an unemployment rate near 10 percent, a sharp increase from 10 years ago. And among people who've been out of work 99 weeks or longer, a college degree doesn't mean anything. High school dropouts and grads were equally represented among the 1.4 million people out of work that long as of last October, according to the Congressional Research Service.
--Don't Expect To Make More Money At Your Next Job
Sure, nearly two years into the "recovery" the private sector had been adding jobs -- crappy ones. The National Employment Law Project, a worker advocacy group, reported in July 2011 that the non-so-great recovery was disproportionately adding low-wage jobs. Low-paying occupations saw growth of 3.2 percent from the beginning of 2010 to the beginning of 2011, while mid-wage jobs only grew by 1.2 percent. During the same time period, higher-wage jobs fell by 1.2 percent. In other words, there were more new jobs for retail salespeople, office clerks, cashiers and food prep workers than for machinists, managers, nurses and accountants.
The skewed job growth came after unbalanced job losses during the Great Recession."Of the net employment losses between the first quarter of 2008 and the first quarter of 2010," NELP said in its report, "fully 60 percent were in mid-wage occupations, 21.3 percent were in lower-wage occupations and 18.7 percent were in higher-wage occupations."
When I interviewed him in May 2011, Bob Poropatich of Pittsburgh had been working part-time as a barista after losing his job as a manager for a major clothing retailer in 2008. He said he'd been with his former company for six years and had 30 years of experience. He has a master's degree. He'd been making $65,000 a year; as a barista, he said he made about $180 a week.
I asked him if he'd done something wrong in his life or if he'd been falling backward by chance.
"This is random and pointless," Poropatich said. "I didn't choose to age. I didn’t choose to be 59. I didn’t choose to be laid off. Every decision was made by a higher power and an HR director."
Poropatich said that in the five job interviews he'd had, he'd tried to get around the rule against being old by promising his hiring wouldn't raise a company's insurance premiums. It hadn't worked.
"I said, 'By the way, I won’t be applying for health benefits and things like that since I already have my own coverage.' They say, 'Okay, thank you.' Nobody is impressed by it. I would think that’s the biggest thing."
He said the worst moment was when his former employer came to his coffee shop.
"My ex boss, the one who laid me off, came in and ordered a venti mocha," he said. "It didn’t faze him at all. I felt like I was two inches tall. I wanted to say, 'Excuse me,' and run into the bathroom."
The following month, Poropatich landed a second job stocking shelves at a grocery store. He earned more money, but he sounded more bitter.
"Together both jobs pay me not even close to a third of what I made when I had just one job," he said.
Despite his bitterness, Poropatich maintained a sense of humor.
"I live in the city of bridges so I'd have my choice of about 20 or 30," he said. "But I couldn't jump -- I can't swim!"
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