The Jobs Picture: Where Often is Heard a “Discouraging” Word…

The monthly jobs snapshot is monotonous. There, we’ve said it. Go ahead and cast your stones and swing your clubs, you data-obsessed number watchers. Those of you who are up with the roosters every first Friday beeline-ing it for your e-mail or for the Department of Labor’s website, yeah we’re talking to you.

Will this picture never ever change? How many different ways can we crunch the numbers, ponder the data that always says the same thing: unemployment is dropping, ever so slightly, and new jobs are being added, but not nearly at a fast enough pace to get us back to pre-Recession levels.  There are still an obscene number of people who have been out of work for 27 weeks are longer (AKA the long-term unemployed), although their ranks are also dropping as their unemployment runs out and they are no longer counted as part of the labor force.

Let me repeat that last bit.

The number of long-term unemployed, according to the January data just released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is at 3.6 million, which is actually a decline of 232,000 from December, making the percentage of long-term unemployed at 35.8% of the total 10.2 million. That’s the lowest percentage of long-term unemployed since August of 2009 (and thank you, as always, Dean Baker and the Center for Economic and Policy Research for your perspective and insight).

Don’t kid yourself into believing that the majority of those 232,000 people are now happily working away at new positions. More likely, their unemployment benefits ran out and they dropped out of the labor force. And if the Republicans and the Democrats ever get their act together and figure out a way to extend unemployment again, (which JVSWorks has called upon them to do), we can probably expect the number of long-term unemployed to start climbing again. Because despite the fact that we seem to add new jobs every month (a meager 113,000 in January), again, the jobs gain is not enough to keep pace with the people who are looking for work, long-term unemployed or otherwise.

So this month, just to break up the monotony of the jobs numbers report a little bit, what’s say we laser in on a figure and a category that caught our attention:

“Among the marginally attached, there were 837,000 discouraged workers in January, about unchanged from a year earlier. Discouraged workers are persons not currently looking for work because they believe no jobs are available for them. The remaining 1.8 million persons marginally attached to the labor force in January had not searched for work for reasons such as school attendance or family responsibilities.” (Emphasis mine).

There’s a category for everything, no? That’s a small fraction, certainly, 837,000 people who are not currently looking for work because they believe – probably from experience – that there is no work to be found. It could be argued that pretty much anybody who is job seeking these days has probably been discouraged.

This issue, this term, came into sharper focus as I was pursuing an excellent article by Mark Peters and David Wessel of The Wall Street Journal. Under the category Idled Americans, Peters and Wessel wrote that “More Men in Their Prime are out of Work and at Home.” More than one in six men in the prime working age of 25 to 54, was out of work, 10.4 million total, they report. And darned if those two Journal reporters didn’t scour the nation to find some representative examples. They introduce us to Mark Riley, the laid off grant writer of an Arkansas community college, Kenneth Gilkes, Jr., former public school worker and community outreach worker who is 29 years old and is applying for two jobs a day.

On it goes: the commodities worker turned tech support employee; the U.S. Army veteran who was discharged due to an injury before he could retire with a comfortable pension, the 35 year-old man with no college education who, after moving back to his native Michigan started looking for part-time work.

You read of these men borrowing against their life insurance, defaulting on their credit cards, relying on family and friends when their unemployment insurance runs out, inventing home projects, volunteering at food banks…whatever it takes to stay busy, productive and sane.

I was struck by a quote by the aforementioned Kenneth Gilkes.

“Sometimes I get discouraged, but honestly I can’t stop applying,” he said. “Everyone tells me there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.”

There’s that “d” word again. Because he keeps filling out the applications and hitting “send,” Gilkes is not officially among the folks the BLS categorizes as a “discouraged workers.”

Still, we get where he’s coming from. The people who come to the JVS WorkSource Centers are in the same boat. You read or hear stories like this and you think, “There but for the whims of fate go I.”

It’s a sobering prospect, meeting those faces behind the numbers. Sobering and, yes, very very discouraging.