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The Black Hole of Long-Term Unemployment

Born out of America's economic crisis is the extraordinary growth of a jobless underclass numbering in the millions.

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Another factor in the explosion of long-term unemployment lies in a shift away from temporary layoffs. In the recessions of 1975, 1980, and 1982, 20% of unemployed workers had been only temporarily laid off; as of August of this year, just 10% had. In their heyday, automakers and steel companies laid off workers as demand dipped, but backstopped by powerful labor unions, those workers were regularly recalled as demand and production revved up again. No more. Now, if you’re long-term unemployed, you’re undoubtedly trying to find a new job with a new employer, a more daunting process. Add it all up and you have Rick Rembold.

"Feast or Famine" in RV Land

Rembold calls himself a Democrat -- "not the peace sign, hit-the-bong type," he hastens to add, but "a tear-off-your-head-and-shit-down-your-neck Democrat." He can't stomach Glenn Beck or talk radio here in the Land of Limbaugh, and with equal zeal he watches MSNBC's Rachel Maddow and FX's "Sons of Anarchy," a gritty, violent series about outlaw motorcycle gangs.

It was a Friday morning, and we were in Rembold's kitchen, drinking coffee and talking politics. He wore jeans and a black polo shirt, and paced as he spoke. Ideas and frustrations poured out of him like water from an open spigot; the man had a lot on his mind. The night before, I had asked him to show me around the area, especially the economic engine that sustains it: the recreational vehicle, or RV, industry. Once the coffee ran dry, we piled into my car and set off.

Cities such as Elkhart and Middlebury and Mishawaka and Wakarusa are the cradle of the RV industry. Headquartered here are major manufacturers like Jayco and Forest River. At its peak, northern Indiana churned out three-quarters of all RVs on the road -- motor homes and fifth-wheels, pop-up campers, travel trailers, and toy haulers. Producing them was grueling work, but you could fashion a middle-class lifestyle out of what it paid. "Workin' in the RV industry, they'll work you to death," Rembold said. "People would literally be sprintin' from one place to the next with power tools in their hands."

Then came "the Panic of '08," as one RV salesman put it to me. Teetering banks choked off consumer lending as credit markets froze. The downturn pummeled the industry. In 2009, sales of fifth-wheels, a smaller trailer you hitch to a truck or SUV, plummeted by 30%, travel trailers by 23.5%, campers by 28%. Manufacturers like Jayco, Monaco Coach, and others collectively  laid off thousands, and the region's unemployment rate spiked by more than 10% in a year. When a newly elected Barack Obama arrived in Elkhart in February 2009 to tout his stimulus plan, the jobless rate was 15.3%; a month later, it reached 18.9%, more than twice the national rate. At one point, Elkhart County, with a population of 200,000, was shedding 95 jobs a day.

In the 1990s and first years of the new century, RV manufacturers couldn't hire enough workers. They ran ads in regional and national newspapers looking for more bodies. "We couldn't even get people to drive over from South Bend to work in Elkhart," a sales rep for Jayco told me.

By the time I arrived, though, the industry had left its feast years, hit the famine ones fast, and was showing the first signs of crawling back. Driving through Middlebury, a town of 3,200 east of Elkhart, I saw a few carrier trucks hustling in or out of plants, some full employee parking lots, and rows of gleaming new RVs dotting the green landscape like herds of boxy cattle.

 
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