Bob Herbert looks behind the economic data, and it ain’t pretty


    A continuing national survey of workers who lost their jobs during the Great Recession, conducted by two professors at Rutgers University, offers anything but a rosy view of the economic prospects for ordinary Americans. It paints, instead, a portrait filled with gloom.

    That paragraph is from The Data and the Reality, Bob Herbert’s NY Times column this morning.   The professor have been following a representative sample from the unemployed since Summer 2009, and their latest report, “The Shattered American Dream: Unemployed Workers Lose Ground, Hope, and Faith in Their Futures,” just came out and is the source of information for Herbert’s gloomy column, which I will explore, and to which I will respond.

    Of the workers followed, only 1/4 have found full-time jobs, “nearly all of them for less pay and with fewer or no benefits.”

    Nearly two-thirds of the unemployed workers who were surveyed have been out of work for a year or more. More than a third have been jobless for two years.

      That means exhausting resources by spending down savings and selling possessions, and having to turn friend and family for financial help.  Medical examinations and treatments are skipped.  

    And for older workers? The report puts it thus:  

    “We are witnessing the birth of a new class – the involuntarily retired. Many of those over age 50 believe they will not work again at a full-time ‘real’ job commensurate with their education and training. More than one-quarter say they expect to retire earlier than they want, which has long-term consequences for themselves and society. Many will file for Social Security as soon as they are eligible, despite the fact that they would receive greater benefits if they were able to delay retiring for a few years.”

    I will turn 65 in May.  I am still working.  Were I to take social security and my relatively small pension, we would not be able to keep our house.  My wife is still working.  But what if neither of us were working, and the only possible source of income were to take early social security:  how can one do anything else, and how devastating is that to one’s long-term future?

    The survey found that workers in general are increasingly accepting the notion that the effects of the recession will be permanent, that they are the result of fundamental changes in the national economy.

    fundamental changes in the national economy are only part of the problem.  The Government’s ability to do anything has been severely restricted by the decision to continue tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.  Next we will see the new Republican majority in the House try to slash what social programs remain.  MEanwhile people are suffering, and lack money even for necessities.

    Increasingly people are out of work, or working at lesser paying jobs that don’t pay well, or lack benefits, or have given up hope of even finding a part-time job.   Our recovery from previous downturns has usually been fueled by consumer spending.  

    Jobless people don’t buy a lot of flat-screen TVs. What we’re really seeing is an erosion of standards of living for an enormous portion of the population, including a substantial segment of the once solid middle class.

    What is really corrosive is the pattern we are now seeing of many people losing hope.  Remember, part of what fueled Obama’s win and increases in Democratic majorities in 2008 was a sense of hope.  That sense of hope has disappeared for far too many.  From a political standpoint, that has been devastating for the Democrats.  Yes, some independents turned against the Democrats.  Far too many of the losses our side suffered were more from people who had voted in 2008 not turning out in 2010.  Why should they? While some might argue that the alternative we are now seeing, Republican control of the House, should have been sufficient motivation, the perception for many was that the Democratic control benefited them little.  

    I know, one can list all of the accomplishments Obama achieved.  On paper they are impressive.  But the reality for many is that they and people they know and about whom they care are still suffering.  

    Some three out of every four Americans have been personally touched by the recession – either they’ve lost a job or a relative or close friend has.

    Herbert refers to a piece in the Times that analyzed the 50,000 job gain in November in the private sector, and found that 80% of those jobs were temporary.  Temporary jobs do not provide security.  They do not provide benefits.  They keep the wolf away from the door while they last, but do not remove the sense of impending doom the workers still confront.

    Yes, holiday sales were up.  But remember, that is up from the depressing level of last year.  Too many still were not able to participate, too many worry that they will not be able to participate a year from now.

    Earlier in his column Herbert offers what I consider the most devastating line of the piece:  

    As the report states: “The recession has been a cataclysm that will have an enduring effect. It is hard to overstate the dire shape of the unemployed.”

    He’s right.  Our political leaders should understand that, and act accordingly.  Neither has.  The Republicans have chosen to pursue an agenda that will further damage the prospects of those who are suffering, and thereby the economic future of the nation.  Blue Dog Democrats interfered with their side moving more aggressively on the kinds of interventions and reforms that could both have made an economic difference and provide more hope.  Leaders who failed to make the case to the American people lost the chance for a sufficient stimulus to go beyond stemming the national downward spiral.  In the foolish attempt for bipartisanship, healthcare reform was delayed, the tea party movement was able to boil up into its mindless destructiveness, and what we finally got was too little and will be too late in implementation to help many in desperate need.

    We are certainly better off with Obama as President than we would have been with McCain.  Joe Biden as vice-President at least as some concern from the middle class, whereas the lunatic who was his Republican critic seems to have no sense about anything except how to promote her own financial well-being.

    What is scary is to consider that even as the economy begins to recover, even if it recovers enough to start to bring down the horrendous rate of real un- and under- employment, it will be too little and too late for millions upon millions of Americans.

    Herbert writes

    What we’re really seeing is an erosion of standards of living for an enormous portion of the population, including a substantial segment of the once solid middle class.

    For the young people I teach, that means too many no longer expect to live at a better level than did their parents.  Hell, for many of them they worry that they will not come close to the economic security they had known when they were younger.  They are restricting their dreams – they apply to state colleges and universities, because even with financial aid they can no longer dream about the famous private colleges and universities, which now seem financially unattainable.  Increasingly they feel they must live at home and commute, and/or also work, starting in high school, and right through college.

    Herbert ends his piece with a short, 4-sentence paragraph, that comes immediately after the sentence I have just quoted:  

    Not only is this not being addressed, but the self-serving, rightward lurch in Washington is all but guaranteed to make matters worse for working people. The zealots reading the economic tea leaves see brighter days ahead. They can afford to be sanguine. They’re working.

    Too many of our people are not.  They look towards a future and do not see that changing, for them, for many others.

    If that is not addressed, this nation will not survive much longer as a liberal democracy.  

    If our side does not learn how to address that, no matter how much of a mess the Republicans make of things, we will not again be returned to full control of the political branches of our government.

    Absent full political control, the damage that will be done will be permanent.

    So will the the loss of hope for millions upon millions.

    What a horrid way to end the year.


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