Jobless in America
On January 27, at the end of a grim week of headlines announcing mass layoffs across the country, Nicholas von Hoffman posted a piece on the Nation website titled "Lost Your Job? Tell Your Story." By turns sad and scathing, frustrated and furious, the testimonials poured in--what follows is only a sample. We encourage readers to share their stories by e-mailing them to email@example.com. Please go to thenation.com for the complete archive. --The Editors
"I had just come back from attending the inauguration in Washington the day before I was told they were letting me go," a salesman named Robert Hinckley writes to The Nation. "My supervisor called me into his office and asked me if I believed in change. Before I could answer, he said he knew I did, since I was a big Obama supporter. Then he told me that the company thought I needed a change, since I didn't seem to be able to 'make my numbers' anymore."
In Maine there are skilled carpenters knocking on doors, asking for any kind of work, shoveling snow or stacking firewood. In Arizona Roger Barthelson, who has a PhD in biochemistry, says, "I am worried about losing my job, which pays about half of what the bottom-level salary is for someone with my experience--if I had a real job. Underemployment is bad enough. Now my little McJob may go away. Maybe I should retrain?"
Add that question to the one e-mailed to The Nation from "Anonymous" in Miami, who cries out, "Where are other people's stories? I have been looking online and, beyond this forum, they are nowhere to be found. Perhaps without an Internet connection, the worst stories will never be heard. Is that the reason for the silence?"
Every business day brings announcements of new layoffs at the big corporations. Layoffs in the small businesses, which comprise hundreds of thousands of jobs, do not get the publicity, but the consequences are the same--panic, worry, want and family disintegration. Animal shelters report that jobless people are bringing in the pets they no longer can afford to keep.
At the current accelerating rate of layoffs, we will be called on to deal with a catastrophe by the end of June. And at this time next year, the nation could be suffering 6, 7, even 8 million more Americans without jobs in a society singularly ill equipped to take on a disaster that many of the people in power thought could never happen.
Past recessions hit blue-collar workers and farmers the hardest and schooled them psychologically, if not financially, in alternating good times and bad. The white-collar wipeout is something new. We have no experience in handling the huge numbers of college-educated, technically trained unemployed.
Not only does unemployment ruin the lives of the people enduring it; it kick-starts home foreclosure rates and stimulates bankruptcies. The people who still have jobs, fearing that they could be next, stop spending money on cars, houses, clothes or anything else.
The past century of depressions, recessions, slumps, panics, dips, slowdowns, busted bubbles and crashes shows that jobs are the last thing to come back, that employment is the slowest to recover. Every job lost postpones the return of prosperity.
This is the moment for a tourniquet on the job hemorrhage. News of the millionaire class using public bailout money for their bonuses and private airplanes has left people feeling stranded and furious. They are demanding that something be done for them.
Washington should get money out to the states so they don't have to cut payrolls. As the bill stands now, it does that in part with education and health, but it ought to go further and make up the billions in deficits that at least forty-six states are looking at and save the thousands of state and local jobs that otherwise will soon be lost. California is already requiring state employees to take two unpaid days a month; before we can turn our attention to job creation, we need to stop the layoffs.
Appropriation of money that cannot be spent immediately should be put off for another day. Transportation money ought to go into running more trains and buses now. Construction on new infrastructure should be postponed, and work crews should be sent out to do repairs now. If a project is ready to start instantly--be it a research proposal, childcare or a theater group--put money into it now.
There are also some tax schemes that might have an immediate effect on job retention, such as Martin Feldstein's proposals to offer tax credits on the down payments on houses and automobiles. This is the time to make employing people as inexpensive as possible--a temporary suspension of the FICA payroll tax would save employers huge sums and put more money into paychecks. Another step might be to allow employers to double their tax deductions on nonexecutive salaries.
The operative word is "now." We must save the jobs we have and then go on to create new ones. Please send your stories and those of your friends so that the faces of the people whose way of life is collapsing are known and their voices are heard. The talking heads, professors, passing celebrities, politicians, experts, analysts and the barking seals of talk-radio and all-news television must not be the only ones who are heard.
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'People no longer had credit cards that worked'
I lost my job a week ago. I was working for a software company here in Southern California, selling educational programs and expecting people to come up with $170 over the phone and give out a credit card number. My manager assured me every day that our business was recession-proof. He said that people will always want to help their children, especially where their education was involved.
Unfortunately, the people I was calling no longer had credit cards that worked. It was sad to listen to some of the stories from people who had just lost their jobs, were expecting to or were worried about losing their homes to foreclosure. When I told them this was a very important purchase, they'd tell me they were more concerned with keeping their home or putting food on the table. Every day I went to work it became more difficult to make the sale. Then I was fired--for not getting enough sales each week. My partner is retired and on Social Security. He also gets a small pension. My income, however, was necessary. We do not know how we are going to pay the bills now.
'Is the George W. Bush Library hiring?'
My original career choice was to be a history professor. After a few years in graduate school, I decided that a career as a librarian or archivist would be more sensible, considering how long it takes to get a PhD and the student loan debt I was racking up. I graduated from library school in the summer of 2007 with $80,000 in debt and had begun my job search months earlier. I moved from Iowa to Oregon to live with my family while I continued to search for a job. Because my mother is also a librarian, she was able to get me a temporary part-time job at her library for five months.
In April 2008, I finally landed what seemed to be a really great job as a corporate archivist in the suburbs of Washington. I knew that this job was risky, as the company provided archival services for corporate clients, and the economy was already faltering. I remember the CEO of the company announcing in a meeting that we always did well during economic downturns due to the fact that we outsourced archives and were cheaper for a company than hiring a full-time archivist. A co-worker also told me not to worry about the economy because we had a financial backer who supported us whether we were profitable or not. I didn't really believe either of these statements because we were rapidly losing clients and not gaining any new ones.
On January 14 I was told that because I was the last one hired in my department, I was to be laid off. I had heard about the procedures for layoffs, but still I was surprised by how I was treated: I had to clear my desk immediately (my computer was already locked), and my co-workers could not even look me in the eye, nor did my boss say goodbye. I have not heard from any of them since that day, and I don't expect to.
It saddens me that so many people of my generation are in the same boat: overeducated, underemployed and in over our heads in student loan debt. It is hard not to be angry at my parents' generation for their years of out-of-control consumerism and lax regulations. Fortunately, a lot of us are ready and willing to work hard to right so many wrongs.
What I need most from the government is health insurance (my coverage ends today) and extended unemployment benefits if I don't find a job within three months. It also wouldn't hurt if libraries and archives received more funding. By the way, is the George W. Bush Library hiring yet? I'll be the first in line.