What happens to workers when jobs leave for good?

WASHINGTON — Over the last year, out-of-work Americans, already down on their luck, have had to endure a barrage of unsympathetic, even mean-spirited, criticism from several of their elected representatives. Many Republicans, especially, have portrayed the jobless as either shiftless deadbeats too lazy to look for work or pompous failures too proud to take a job beneath their social standing.

Neither analysis is an accurate reflection of the desolate landscape in which many American workers find themselves. Surely those Republicans know that the unemployment rate has been stuck near ten percent for a year and a half; there are about five applicants for every job opening.

And, as Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said recently on “60 Minutes,” we’re unlikely to see a flush economy for several more years. That’s because the recent recession, brought on by Wall Street excesses, isn’t the only culprit.

For decades now, globalization and technology have been grinding away at American jobs, a process which has gained speed of late. And most of those jobs are never coming back.

Take my southern Alabama hometown. Best known as the  setting for Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” it was never a prosperous place, but its textile mills and pulpwood plants used to provide a decent living for working-class residents.

The textile company now known as VF Corporation brought factories to Monroeville in the 1930s, providing paychecks to women (mostly) from the white working-class. By the 1970s, black women were also employed at its sewing machines, making Vanity Fair underwear sold in well-known department stores.

By the 1980s, Parsons & Whittemore Enterprises, one of the world’s largest producers of pulp for paper-making, was operating several mills in Monroe County. Its Alabama River Companies became the local standard for good wages. In 2000, Medline, a huge manufacturer and distributor of health care products and hospital scrubs, opened a small facility that seemed to promise a semblance of security.

But times have changed. The sewing mills have largely moved to low wage countries such as Vietnam and Bangladesh. Medline closed its Monroeville facility, though it has expanded its operations in Mexico and other locales.

For its part, the pulp business has been buffeted by such disparate technology-related trends as the decline of newspapers (a huge consumer of newsprint) and the rise of digital cameras (which circumvent the old print-snapshots-on paper habit). Plants have been shuttered and workers laid off. Some may eventually be re-hired, but many will not find work again that pays as well.

While the state of Alabama has an unemployment rate of 8.9 percent, lower than the national average, Monroe County has an unemployment rate of about 16 percent. Its jobless residents can knock on doors, submit applications and spend countless hours in re-training classes at the local community college, but most are unlikely to find work any time soon. If your job experience is limited to cutting and dying at a textile mill, you’ll find it difficult to remake yourself as a nurse or a computer technician.

The prospects for Monroeville’s jobless workers won’t be transformed by the deal that President Obama has struck with Republican leaders, who insisted on maintaining Bush-era tax cuts for the richest Americans. The owners of textile plants are unlikely to decide that southern Alabama has suddenly become better for business than Brazil. Nor will the hiring plans at Georgia Pacific, which bought Parsons & Whittemore’s Monroe County holdings, change because its executives keep more money in their pockets.

The best news for the unemployed all over the country is that Obama managed to wrest a year-long extension of unemployment benefits out of the deal. For those workers who have nothing else, that’s the difference between eating and going hungry, paying the heating bill and sitting in the cold.

Indeed, Congress — despite its deficit hawks and its compassion-less conservatives — needs to reconsider the old idea that unemployment benefits are a short-term lifeline that is dropped after a recession ends. This was no ordinary recession; it is an earthquake that is destroying the old economy and creating a new one in its wake.

The victims of those tectonic shifts — especially workers too old to learn a new skill or move to a new city – may need long-term, government-funded assistance. It’s not their fault that the ground suddenly shifted beneath their feet.

457 comments Add your comment

Nothing Is Free

December 8th, 2010
10:03 pm

Gretchen

We can focus more on job creation later? Are you crazy? Do you think that the mother or father that is about to lose their home gives a damn about the deficit?

Eds

December 9th, 2010
2:33 am

Ms. Tucker,
I never cease to be amazed at the folks who read your column. Wow. I guess none of them are out of work or know anyone who is out of work. Good luck in Georgia this year. Nathan Deal and the majority republican state legislatures are going to take the state for a ride. The results should show the rest of the country what republican governance truly brings to citizens. Glad I moved out of state.

Lil' Barry Bailout

December 9th, 2010
4:06 am

No one noticed, Eds.

Betty

December 9th, 2010
6:58 am

Class of ‘98 It is unreasonable to think that long term unemployment benefits will not be needed. There are no jobs. You may have a point if jobs were left unfilled. What part of no jobs don’t you understand?

I Report (-: You Whine )-: mmm, mmmm, mmmmm! Just sayin...

December 9th, 2010
7:36 am

Polls add credence to conclusion – PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA The statement:“There are polls showing right now that the American people for the most part think it’s a bad idea to provide tax cuts to the wealthy.”— From Tuesday’s news conference -Urinal

Aahhh, so he did it anyway.

But at least the dummycrats have their Truth – O – Meter to cling to.

The REAL GodHatesTrash, Superstar

December 9th, 2010
8:51 am

Obama, it’s the economy, stupid. And what is fundamentally wrong with the economy is the lack of jobs.

The captains of industry? There aren’t any, because there is no real industry left here. Silicon Valley still turns out great ideas, then send them to South Korea for hardware design, gets Indians to do software coding, and gets the Chinese to build them. The phones and electronics you buy? Only the cardboard box is made in the USA. Who’s going to buy your $400K house – the illegals you get to mow your lawn? The sales girl at Macy’s? The burger flippers at Mickey Ds? Your friendly trailerhood Walmart greeter?

Our best business programs – that attract many of the country’s best minds – don’t turn out businessmen – they churn out people that are highly trained and very effective at finding ways to make your money into their money. A Wharton or Stanford MBA ends up in “financial services” with a license to steal.

Our engineering schools – the finest in the world – are populated primarily by foreign-born students, who increasingly aren’t staying here, but going back home, where the work is.

Most rich folks are smart with their money – they do everything they can to avoid taxes, most figure out fairly elaborate ways to disguise their cash flow as expenses – depending on their business, their ability to hide cash flow in trusts, business assets, gifting to their children, setting up charitable organizations to employ relatives to manage the organizations, etc.

Are they going to take their tax savings and invest? Yes! But not in jobs here.

Smart money is investing in overseas markets, selling the dollar short. Currency backed by the “full faith and credit of the United States of America…”. A joke. If this deficit keeps going up, the rich folks will be wiping their arses with $100 bills, because that will be the best use for it.

The American economic empire is in rapid decline. The only solace is that the states that hate gummint the worst are reaping the whirlwind first.

ronald

December 9th, 2010
10:34 am

Kamchak said- “Class envy? Don’t make me laugh. I actually create something tangible, when all you do is move money around among accounts.”

Look Kamchak. You work in construction, OK? No education necessary and you’re probably working with illegal immigrants all day. Congratulations on your “tangible work”. I got paid to make money for clients. Somehow in your distorted mind, money isn’t “something tangible? People like you would gladly do the type of work that I did, if only they had the skill set, but usually they don’t, which is why they end up in construction. Thats reality.

Also, I’ve read many of your posts on many threads here and if 1 thing is certain, it is that you are eaten up with class envy. You have always demonstrated open hostility toward anyone that you view as being wealthy or successful. That is your problem, not mine. You are a dinasour who is trying to apply your 1940’s education to a modern economy where the pieces don’t fit together like they used to. Instead of accepting the new reality around you, you continue to try to put your square peg into the round hole and you b*tch at everyone who is able to succeed in modern times. In short, you are an aging moron who’s best years are far far behind you.