Keith Baudendistel counts himself lucky. The reason is convoluted. He is, after all, unemployed, having lost his factory job in East St. Louis nearly three and a half years ago.That puts him easily among the 6.1 million Americans labeled by the government as long-term unemployed. What makes Baudendistel lucky is that his wife works. And her second income, which once made the couple comfortable, is now in effect their unemployment insurance.
Born of the women’s movement and the income stagnation that started in the 1970s—soon making one income inadequate—the two-income family became a means of staying in the middle class or striving for that status. Now, one of those incomes is rapidly disappearing as more and more husbands or wives lose a job and, in a period of minimal job creation, can’t get back into the workforce. Once the unemployment benefits expire for the jobless husband or wife, the working spouse’s income then becomes the couple’s jobless pay, sustaining them, but at a lower—sometimes much lower—standard of living.
“We started out after World War II telling people that one person could support a family, and after a while that one income was not enough,” notes Heather Boushey, senior economist at the Center for American Progress, in Washington. “Then we said that if the husband and wife both worked, they would get into the middle class. And now more and more the second person is not working.”
Keith and Rhonda Baudendistel, in their late 40s, fit this pattern. They married as teenagers twenty-nine years ago, raised three daughters (the youngest is 15) and for much of their married life, he worked on the assembly line at Cerro Flow Products, a pipe and tube manufacturer not far from the family home. His pay had risen to $17.50 an hour when the company started furloughing workers. At first there were callbacks; then in 2007 the callbacks stopped. “I look for factory work; that’s all I’ve ever done. But I can’t find any,” Baudendistel says.
The army of the unemployed, in the Great Depression, would undoubtedly have included Baudendistel. He might have ended up on a bread line, one of the expressionless faces in the bleak photographs from that era. The formal designation did not exist in those days, but like many of those forebears, Baudendistel is “long-term unemployed,” which the Labor Department defines as being out of work for at least twenty-seven weeks. The modern-day army of the long-term unemployed rose a bit in March, to 45.5 percent of the nation’s 13.5 million jobless workers. Rarely since the 1930s has the percentage been so high. Still, Baudendistel is better off than his ’30s counterparts. He at least collected a year’s worth of unemployment pay, which was nonexistent until 1935. And perhaps most important, his wife has a job, a common fallback now—and a crucial one, given that men are falling out of work more frequently than women.
Rhonda Baudendistel joined the workforce while her husband’s job seemed secure. She still works for her first employer, a company that repairs and services vending machines in a St. Louis suburb, across the Mississippi River. For a while, his pay and the $9 an hour she earned in the shipping department lifted the family’s income to more than $50,000 a year. When he lost his job, her boss allowed her to go to fifty-five hours a week from forty, with the additional fifteen at time-and-a-half pay. It meant a twelve-hour workday, including the commute, to bring home just $400 a week, after deductions, the largest of which covered the health insurance her husband once got on the job. “After Keith lost his job, I begged my boss for the overtime,” Rhonda says.