As the government on Friday released its latest official snapshot of the American labor market -- finding that the economy in June added a paltry 80,000 net new jobs, while the unemployment rate held steady at 8.2 percent -- most commentators seized on the data as generic fodder for the unceasing campaign story.
How will Republican nominee Mitt Romney exploit these fresh indications of distress for his own political benefit? Can President Barack Obama survive a weak economy to claim reelection? These are predictable questions, the sorts of reactions we can play for ourselves in our heads without bothering to turn on the television. Their ubiquity testifies to the degree to which too many professional observers are inured to the real human experiences behind the data.
The horrendous job market is not a political story. It is a national emergency playing out in slow motion, a catastrophe that has come to dominate life in millions of American homes. The persistent shortage of paychecks has seeped into our aspirations and made them smaller. It has eroded the basic American understanding about the supposed rewards of trying hard, getting educated and looking for work -- a formula too many people have been following only to wind up destitute, discouraged and dispossessed.
Will the president survive the most punishing job market since the Depression? That's backwards. The real question is whether people like Yvonne Smith can survive the job market.
Out of work, out of money and running out of improvised solutions to the problems of not being able to afford rent, Smith and her 14-year-old son have been sleeping on the floor of a storage locker in northern Georgia, where they stashed their belongings after being evicted from their rented townhouse in February.
"Where else were we going to?" she told me by way of explanation when I met her last month at a food bank in Chattanooga. "I try not to think about it, but that's our space, and we sleep there."
Smith, 51, has grown accustomed to working with what's available, following the collapse of more ambitious plans. A decade ago, she moved to Atlanta from New York City, where she had been earning $57,000 a year as a document processor at a law firm, in what amounted to a classic American reach for upward mobility.
"In New York, everything was fine, but I wanted better," she told me. "I was tired of the weather, and I wanted my son to have his own yard."
In Atlanta, she rented a house for what she had been paying to rent a cramped apartment in the Bronx. She got another legal job, and settled into what felt like a better life. Then came the Great Recession.
In 2008, she was laid off along with her entire department, she says. She looked for work, but Atlanta's job market was bleak even by the standards of the downturn already gripping the nation. As the months passed without a paycheck, and as she lowered her sights from legal work to office temp jobs to cashier's positions at grocery stores, she and her son subsisted on food stamps and her $320-a- week unemployment check.
When that check ran out in June 2010, they piled their belongings into their aging Chevy Trailblazer and moved to northern Georgia, where they could rent a modest apartment with the last of their savings, and she could try to find a job. She found a position in a local warehouse, but it was only temporary. She secured another temp job at an Amazon distribution center in Chattanooga, some 20 miles away.
Then, one Saturday morning last November, the repo man came knocking at their door. She was more than $1,800 behind on the payments for her vehicle, and he drove it away, eliminating her means of getting to work.
For a time, a friend who also worked at the Amazon plant gave her a lift. But when the friend lost her job just before Christmas, Smith was out of options, and again jobless.
When her eviction came in February, Smith and her son took refuge in a van that belonged to a Baptist church, and then at a homeless shelter where they spent two months before reaching the limit, prompting them to camp out in their storage locker. They lie down there, alongside their dinette set, their couches, their family photos, their kitchenware, their clothes - all the accouterments of a life that is no longer operative. In the morning, before anyone comes to work there, they sneak out and she rides a bus to the dollar store where she has a part-time job as a cashier for minimum wage -- enough to survive, but not enough to contemplate a home.
Smith's story may be extreme, but it is hardly unique. You can easily meet people confronting such circumstances at food banks, homeless shelters, and in welfare offices. It used to be that those who landed in such straits tended to present a complex assortment of problems, from substance abuse to mental illness. More and more, people have been sliding into such states because of one dominant problem: They can't find work.
Buried in the latest jobs report is a brutal data point that clever analysts have tired of bothering to mention, because it has become a permanent feature of our times: 5.4 million people have been officially out of work for six months or longer.
This number stands in for a group of actual people - the so-called long-term unemployed - whose material circumstances have been remade, along with their fundamental expectations about their lives.
Four years have passed since Monica Ross-Williams, 42, lost her job overseeing a retail store for a major cell phone carrier in Michigan. In that time, she has tried her hand as an entrepreneur, launching an ill-fated janitorial services company. She worked part-time as a merchandising representative for prominent brands, training staff at big box retailers on how to sell the product. College-educated, she used to make $50,000 a year. Now, she is happy to line up part time work that pays $10 an hour. Her credit has been tarnished. Her husband is still working, but lean years have taken a toll, chopping their household income roughly in half.
"It has put a strain on our marriage," she says. "When you have financial issues, every discussion leads to people being depressed. 'How are you going to be able to pay this?' 'How are going to be able to pay that?'"
Ross-Williams has become a frequent blogger whose contributions center on creative solutions to joblessness, such as credit to help those out of work launch their own businesses.
"It's definitely not paying my bills, but it's my passion," she says. "I feel like I have finally found my voice. I want to, if nothing else, be a voice for people in my situation and not let others think that unemployed people just want to sit around collecting unemployment checks."
Yet even as she demonstrates resourcefulness and an irrepressible spirit, her faith in the opportunities that once seemed so abundant has taken a hit.
"I really honestly believed - I'm not going to lie in corp America - that basically if you worked very hard, you were rewarded with good pay," she says. "That has been shaken."
This sort of downward adjustment is now part and parcel of the American story -- a story that will not be altered so long as the economy merely stands in as a prop for two candidates proffering dueling narratives about where we are and how we got here.
It will not be addressed so long as the pundit class is content to tease out the data points of another awful jobs report for insights into electoral fortunes.
The campaign ought to be an opportunity for sustained debate about what we can do to fix the economy, rather than a platform for talk about how the economy can be used to wage the campaign. We need an active, serious focus on large-scale job creation. Everything else is just noise.
Follow Peter S. Goodman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/petersgoodman
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