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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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Later, over lunch at what looked to be Topeka's lone diner, he explained that Angie planned to quit her job over the unpaid bonus. After a full morning telling me about the nightmare of being out of work, he looked stunned. "You'd think she'd have learned from my situation. I don't think she realizes how her life is going to change."

The Trauma of Long-Term Unemployment

It’s hard, even for the long-term unemployed, to grasp just how drastically life can change without work. Studying past recessions to discover just what does happen, researchers often focus on the collapse of the steel industry in Pennsylvania in the late 1970s that would turn a once-thriving region into a landscape of shuttered factories and ghost towns. Eighty thousand people worked in steel in the 1940s; by 1987, 4,000 remained.

In one study, male Pennsylvania workers with high seniority experienced a 50% to 100% spike in mortality rate in the first year after job loss. The life expectancies of those laid off after age 40 decreased by one to one-and-a-half years. In the long run, these laid-off Pennsylvanians suffered a 15% to 20% reduction in earnings. Those hardest hit in terms of lifelong earnings, economists found, were not low-skilled laborers or highly skilled wealthy elites, but workers who had managed to forge a middle-class lifestyle.

Suicide rates also increase, researchers have found, when unemployment rises. (In Elkhart County, near where Rembold lives, suicides exceeded the annual average by 40% last year.)

The 1980s recession in Pennsylvania was no outlier either, economic researchers have discovered, and the effects of long-term unemployment spread well beyond directly afflicted workers. In the short run, for instance, a child whose parent loses his or her job is 15% more likely to repeat a grade year in school, according to University of California-Davis economists Ann Huff Stevens and Jessamyn Schaller. This is especially true for children with less-educated parents.

Over their lifetime, the children of jobless fathers earn, on average, 9% less each year than similar children without laid-off dads, and are more likely to receive unemployment insurance and social welfare support at some point in their lifetimes. New research also suggests that the children of laid-off parents may have lower homeownership rates and higher divorce rates.

"I'm Not Competing With Some College Kid"

In the early evening, Rembold and I holed up in his office, a small room off the main hallway with a computer, two desks, and countless framed photos. Rembold clicked open a folder on his Internet browser labeled "Careers" and walked me through his daily online job-hunting routine. He checks half-a-dozen job boards regularly, though openings tend to pay only in the $8- to $10-an-hour range. He rejects most of those out of hand.

"Wouldn’t that be better than no job at all?" I ask.

Rembold gnaws on the question. "I can't afford my home at $8 or $10 an hour," he finally replies. Right now, he’s getting by on unemployment checks, a small inheritance from his mother that's rapidly dwindling, and loans from family members. Still, he'd rather keep trolling the job boards in the hopes of finding something offering a living wage. "I've got a mortgage to pay, for Christ's sake," he told me. The few openings he sees with good pay, however, involve odd hours, dusk-to-dawn shifts that would mean he'd almost never see Terri, whose schedule at an aluminum company in Elkhart is early morning to mid-afternoon.

And then, under the dollar signs lurks something else: self-respect. Unlike his father, Rembold never went to college, and doesn't consider himself too good for service-sector jobs.  But he visibly agonizes over the fact that, as a 56-year-old man with decades of experience, he's competing with people half his age for low-wage jobs. After all, as a machine operator fresh out of high school at White Farm Equipment, he earned $8.64 an hour. That was 1976. Adjusted for inflation, that's equivalent to $42.42 today. No wonder the man's reluctant to flip burgers or trim hedges for $9 an hour.

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