Downward Mobility A Modern Economic Reality
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Last week's disappointing jobs numbers offer little hope of change anytime soon for the millions of long-term unemployed and underemployed Americans. For too many, this crisis has extended so long that cherished plans have been set aside and sights lowered: owning a home maybe, a college fund for the kids, family vacations.
Many who expected to move up find themselves in the harsh new reality of the downwardly mobile. Have you adjusted your ambitions? What are your goals now? 800-989-8255 is our phone number. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, NPR foreign correspondent Deborah Amos on life for Syrians inside and outside their country, but first the downward adjustment of American aspirations. Monica Ross-Williams joins us from member station WUOM in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Her economic reality changed four years ago, and, well, it stayed that way. Thanks very much for being with us today.
MONICA ROSS-WILLIAMS: Thank you.
CONAN: So what happened?
ROSS-WILLIAMS: Well, basically in 2008, I was laid off from my employer in a telecommunications industry, and, you know, I thought that I would get back to work quickly. Unfortunately, that didn't happen. I tried to actually start a business with a scholarship that I received from an organization, at least for the franchise fee.
And I worked very hard at getting that business off the ground, but unfortunately the Michigan economy at that point in time, which is 2009, just wasn't doing very well. And so it was very hard to get that type of - it was a janitorial services - off the ground.
And so from there, you know, I got disappointed. You know, I was always one of those people that believed in I guess you'd say the corporate America mantra, that if you work hard, then you would be rewarded. Well, at that point, I was pretty much thinking even though I'm working hard, I'm not being rewarded very well at the moment.
And so I started basically wanting to express what I was feeling inside of my heart, obviously, on paper or better yet on the Internet. So I started writing. I originally was a writer for the examiner.com for the Detroit jobs section of the examiner, and then I expanded it from there to starting my own blog, ROJS News, and, you know, we do a small podcast named ROJS Radio.
Basically it's to put a face on 99ers, which are the people who are long-term unemployed, underemployed that are exhausted from all forms of federal or state benefits. And - yeah, go ahead.
CONAN: I just wanted to ask: Given that, and I assume your blog, well, I guess you get something out of it, but it's probably not the same as you got before, working a regular job. So how have you had to adjust your plan?
ROSS-WILLIAMS: Oh wow. Well, at the time that I got laid off, I was making right around between $50,000 and $55,000 a year. Since that point, it's lucky if I make $17,000 a year at the present time. My husband and I are - have definitely adjusted our plans. We don't take vacations like we used to. Things have been put aside. You know, we struggle basically to figure out the priorities of which bills will be paid. And it's been very disappointing.
It's been hard in regards to, you know, where we had looked to take our life. We planned on moving out of our house in like six years, once our kids got grown. Unfortunately, that has not been able to be done. The house is underwater, and even if we, you know, could move, we can't.
CONAN: And interestingly, though, you've taken your situation and tried to do something with it, tried to express yourself and write for other people, too.
ROSS-WILLIAMS: Yes, and it's actually what I would define and call my passion now. We have heard - and when I say we, I'm talking about the folks in the long-term unemployed, underemployed community, have heard from folks in Washington, D.C., that, you know, we're quote-unquote "drug addicts" or people that just want to sit around and collect government checks. And that is the furthest from the truth.
Instead what we want is to have an opportunity to get back into this economy. And so what I try and do with the work that I do on the blog and on the radio show is to show that face, to show the faces of people that are trying their hardest to, you know, just to return back into American society.
And, you know, I'm hoping that, you know, this would be something that people can look to in order to get out of their boxed thinking, that the long-term unemployed are just people that just want to sit around collecting unemployment benefits.
CONAN: No, I understand that, and you must hear an awful lot of stories, doing what you're doing. People who work hard and - but, you know, the dreams, your dreams have been deferred, and at some point do you start thinking, well, this is not just a postponement, this is the new reality?
ROSS-WILLIAMS: Oh, I'm trying not to believe that. I really am. I mean, you know, I'm not going to lie: After four years, it's been very hard not to get discouraged and get depressed and wonder is this ever going to end. But I just want to - I guess my faith keeps me going that if we can just basically look at the reality that we have 25 to 20 - I mean, 25 to 28 million Americans, not all of these Americans are just, like, sitting around just, you know, waiting on - want to wait on unemployment checks.
They want to get back into this economy. They want to get back into this society. And the way that we do that is a combination of true job creation and also basically entrepreneurism. There are some people that have some great ideas to start businesses, but they can't do it because they don't have the credit. If you've been unemployed for a while, usually your credit goes, too.
CONAN: And that's a very difficult thing to recapture without - well, it's like a cycle, it just spirals and spirals and spirals, one thing chasing after another. Monica Ross-Williams, good luck with the blog, good luck with the podcast.
ROSS-WILLIAMS: Thank you very much. You have a great day.
CONAN: Thanks very much for being with us today. She was joining us from member station WUOM in Ann Arbor. She's the creator and editor of reachoutjobsearch.com, and we appreciate her efforts today. Joining us now from our bureau in New York is New York Times labor and workplace correspondent Steven Greenhouse, who's been kind enough to join us for several of these programs. Steven, always good to have you on the program.
STEVEN GREENHOUSE: Nice to be here, Neal.
CONAN: And how common is Monica's story?
GREENHOUSE: Unfortunately too common. Monica is wonderfully eloquent in describing the plight that she and many other workers or unemployed workers face. You know, unfortunately, there are nearly 13 million Americans unemployed, you know, 5.2 million have been unemployed for more than six months. And one can only begin to imagine how depressing, discouraging it is for these 5.2 million and their children and their spouses.
And, you know, the job market isn't very good. It's become highly politicized about how good or bad the job market is, but when you realize there are 13 million unemployed, there are, you know, over eight million part-time workers who want to work full time, there are, you know, several million workers who have dropped out of the workforce because they're so discouraged.
As Monica said, there are 25, 28, 30 million Americans who are underemployed, unemployed, discouraged, who dropped out of the workforce, and this is a huge chunk of the population.
Peter Goodman wrote an excellent piece in the Huffington Post recently saying, you know, this really isn't a political problem, this is a national jobs emergency, and there doesn't seem to be much urgency in Washington, or even in Europe where the unemployment rate is over 11 percent, to really turn things around.
And for, you know, the millions and millions of people who are unemployed, and their kids, who are having a hard time, who maybe can't go to the movies as much as they like or can't get the baseball mitt they would like to get, this is really hard. And it really, as Monica said, really limits their horizons and leads to a long-term disillusionment in many ways.
CONAN: Corrosion, almost.
GREENHOUSE: Corrosion, that's a good word, Neal.
CONAN: All right, let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation. We want to hear from those of you who have adjusted your aspirations, 800-989-8255. Email is firstname.lastname@example.org. We'll start with Fred, and Fred's on the line with us from Tucson.
FRED: Hi, yeah, my wife and I both graduated from University of Arizona in 2006, moved to Boston so that my wife could attend Harvard for graduate studies, and the economy just tanked at that point, basically. And we had to move back to Tucson because we couldn't keep or find decent work in Boston. She had to leave her classes.
And when we got back here, she had to take a secretarial job, and after not being able to find work for a year and a half, I started my own landscaping business and started taking side jobs as I can get them.
CONAN: And this is not presumably what you thought you'd be doing when you graduated.
FRED: No, I thought my wife would have a Harvard graduate income by now, and I would at least have been in graduate school myself.
CONAN: And what about the ambitions: the house, the life that you thought you were going to lead?
FRED: Yeah, and we were sort of older graduates, too. We - and we had, we have five children, as well, and she had given birth in between semesters as we went. So expecting that we were going to college to improve our lives and the opportunities that that degree would give us is just not a reality anymore. And the opportunity, like you said, of buying a house or being able to pay for kids to go to college just not - we're hoping just to make rent each month.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, we wish you the best of luck, Fred.
FRED: All right, thanks.
CONAN: Bye-bye. And Steven Greenhouse, there are so many people who at the beginning of this said wait a minute, this is an opportunity to get an education, when the economy picks up, I'll get out of school, and I'll be much better equipped for a good job down the line.
GREENHOUSE: That's absolutely true, and I believe two, three years ago on your show, Neal, I said well now that the job market is so lousy and the unemployment is so high, if you're in your 20s, it's a good time to get that extra, you know, master's degree or MBA or law degree and that when you get out in two, three years, the job market will be better.
Well, the job market is a little better, but it's still not nearly good enough. You know, there are still nearly 13 million people unemployed. Sometimes I liken what's happened to the unemployed to what's happened with veterans, you know, with soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
You know, only a small percentage of the population fights over there, and I think too many Americans have forgotten the plight, the horrors, the dangers that our troops face over there. And similarly, you know, the limited number of unemployed, and I think too many Americans forget their plight. They don't see it every day. You know, I live in New York City, and I walk around, and I pass restaurants, and they are often full or near-full.
And some friends of mine will say: Wow, it doesn't like there are real economic problems here. But remember, there are 13 million people who are unemployed who can't afford to go to the restaurants, and as I said, they are suffering, their kids are suffering, their spouses are suffering.
CONAN: We're talking about the economic reality that faces many Americans: downward mobility. If this is your story, call and tell us: Have you adjusted your ambitions? 800-989-8255. Email email@example.com. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan. Every generation expects to earn more and do better than their parents, to be upwardly mobile. Often that's the way it works out, but after months of disappointing jobs numbers, too many Americans face a gloomier economic reality: downward mobility.
Have you adjusted your ambitions? What are your goals now? Our number, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. We're talking, as we often do on these subjects, with Steven Greenhouse, the labor and workplace correspondent for the New York Times. And let's get Rachel(ph) on the line. Rachel's with us from Alva, Oklahoma.
RACHEL: Yes, hey Neal, how are you getting along?
CONAN: I'm doing well, Rachel, thank you.
RACHEL: I'm pumping wells right now, as I speak, which is something that I never, ever planned to be doing at 51 years old and probably one of maybe two or three female pumpers in this whole region.
CONAN: And from Alva, Oklahoma, I assume those are oil wells.
RACHEL: Those are oil wells. Yes, sir, they are.
CONAN: What's involved in pumping a well?
RACHEL: Well, you're in charge of kind of everything. My wells are all oil-producing, and so I have engines, pumping engines. And I take care of the entire pumping unit, and I run - I take care of the production of the well, and I call my oil in, and I have my oil (unintelligible), everything to do with the management of the well after it's been drilled and it's pumping.
CONAN: Those are the nodding donkeys we see on the side of the road?
RACHEL: Yes, things that go up and down like Singer sewing machines.
CONAN: And what did you do before that you didn't expect to be pumping - taking care of oil pumps?
RACHEL: Well, I was in the military for a good portion of my life, but then I got into the Reserves, and when I was in the Reserves, I was in journalism.
CONAN: And we all know what's happened to the journalism business.
RACHEL: Yes, sir. Well, and I still - I've decided I kind of want to, you know, keep writing, and I'm actually working on some projects right now that are with regard to just working as a female in a male-dominated industry. But I never, ever thought that I would be - I came to Oklahoma really in a way to sort of semi-retire and really do more writing.
And it just was not - you know, right about the time when the bottom fell out of the journalism industry, and there just wasn't enough money. I have a - I had a daughter in college, and there just wasn't enough money to support me that way, and so I got into an industry. I'm in great shape, and I got into an industry that I knew would be able to support that, and that is the oil field.
So I'm working physically in a way that I never at 51 thought that I would be, and I don't see - I see myself doing this for another at least nine years before I can afford to really even think about retiring.
CONAN: And that's with the cushion of your military retirement, too.
RACHEL: Yes, what I have coming - I retired ultimately out of the Reserves. So I won't get that for quite some time. You don't get that usually until you're about 60 I think is the age now. I'm not sure what they've decided. It's kind of gone back and forth.
CONAN: Well, we wish you the best of luck, thanks very much for the call, keep in charge of those wells.
RACHEL: Thank you.
CONAN: Appreciate it. Here's an email that we have, this is from a writer who's asked that we not use her name: I was let go from my university job two and a half years ago. It's a highly skilled researcher and writer with expertise in youth media and education, a real growth field. Perhaps for some, though, I'm not that young, or that old, but I find the middle of this industry has been hollowed out. I have part-time work mainly for the health insurance, thank God, and juggle three-plus freelance gigs at any given time. I drive a 17-year-old car, shop at TJ Maxx when I do shop and make excuses when my friends invite me out to eat, but I'm one of the lucky ones.
I hear and - boy, Steven Greenhouse, you hear that a lot, people juggling all of these outside gigs just to try to make ends meet.
GREENHOUSE: Yes, unfortunately it's very tough. You know, the labor market, the job market, the economy faces - you know, workers face many problems. Not only is unemployment high, but as, you know, the email writer writes, kind of the structure of jobs has changed, and that's made it very hard for workers.
There's an increasing number of temp workers, an increasing number of part-time workers. You hear a lot of university professors complaining that I'm just an adjunct. I'm not making the $70,000 a year, $90,000 a year a fulltime professor, I'm an adjunct teaching three courses, all I make is $18,000 a year.
There's, you know, more and more workers are so-called contingent workers, and while this might be great for universities to hold down costs or for companies to push up profits, you know, these millions and millions of workers who are working just temporary or part time, their lives often become difficult.
And as the email writers said, you know, they're trying very, very hard to string together one or two jobs here, a freelance assignment there, maybe I can get a little health insurance there. And it's a really hard way to live for a decade or two decades or three decades, especially if you want to have kids or if you already have kids.
CONAN: It's one of those things that a lot of people do in their 20s. As you say, it gets harder when you get older.
GREENHOUSE: I think a lot - Neal, I think a lot of people they'll just be working as freelancers or part-timers or temps in their 20s, but unfortunately because of the economic, you know, crisis, the high employment and because of changes in the job market, a lot of people are now doing this in their 30s and 40s and 50s.
And a lot of people are, you know, kind of living hand to mouth, don't have enough money to save for retirement, don't have enough money to save for their kids' education. David Brooks has this terrific column today in the New York Times where he says, you know, wealthy parents are spending thousands and thousands of dollars on enhancement for their kids, you know, for music lessons, for tutors to do well on the SATs, whatever. But, you know, working-class parents just don't have that type of money, especially during this economic crisis when a lot of people are working part time, don't have jobs, and so their kids aren't getting the same enhancements. So that kind of just reinforces the inequality that already exists in American society.
CONAN: Let's go next to Steve(ph), Steve's on the line with us from Wilmington, North Carolina.
STEVE: Hi, how are you? Thanks for taking my call, gentlemen.
CONAN: Sure, go ahead, please.
STEVE: Well, I'm I guess a victim of the economy like everyone else. My income has dropped off probably to 30 percent of what it was several years back. My wife is employed part time at a local retailer, enjoying it, and we are suffering mightily if you want to compare our, you know, previous sort of standard of living.
But the one thing that I sort of note not just in this broadcast but sort of, you know, on a wider scale is just sort of a - once again a sense of entitlement and sort of sorrowful, you know, comments about their plight. You know, one of the, you know, risks of freedom is risk. And I think that we're all suffering from a massive correction, from horrible excesses that have been part of our economy for however long, the last 10 years.
And I will admit I was one of those that used to swipe my house like an ATM every time it would supposedly go up another $100,000 or so, pocket the cash and put in a pool. Well, now I'm paying the price. You know, we're - there was a short sale on our house, and I'm grateful that we didn't end up holding the bag, but we lost what we perceive would have been several hundred thousand dollars of equity, you know, for that old familiar pain I used to have as a teenager trying to cobble together rent has come back to hit us a few times when we realized oh my gosh, you know, we're going to have to call the landlord and talk to him.
Other times, you know, things are a little better. But the thing that we haven't lost I think is a sense of excitement and enthusiasm about living in America and being able to get ahead once we get through this, you know, self-induced crisis that I think we've all had. And I think that spirit has been lost.
And for us to get ahead as a country, we need to regain that. I mean, a kind of post-"Grapes of Wrath." Well, guess what? We're there again.
CONAN: Yeah, guess what, we're there again, but Steven Greenhouse, sure there are a lot of people who have that same spirit that Steve is talking about, but that corrosion that we talked about, after a while you start to give up hope that things are going to change.
GREENHOUSE: Neal, you know, Steve said some important things about the, you know, willingness, desire to get ahead. That's, you know, us Americans, the American dream. But I remember what Monica said at the top of the program. You know, she worked very hard. She thinks, you know, the American credo is if you work hard, you get ahead, and you make it. And a lot of people like Monica have worked very hard and have gotten laid off and have tried new jobs and not gotten them.
So there are millions and millions of Americans who want to do exactly what Steve says, I mean, who want to work hard, but it ain't working out for them right now because there are these, you know, fundamental problems in the labor market and the job market where not enough people are being hired.
You know, some academics say there's this weird thing going on in the American economy that economic growth has been moderate to pretty good. Corporate profits are at record levels, yet companies are really not hiring very much. And there's this disconnect between corporate profits and economic growth on one hand and the amount of jobs that are being created and what's happening with wages.
Wages have really been stagnant the past few years, and there's a big question now: How do we correct that? You know, some people say we need more government stimulus, some people say we have to relax regulations. Other people say it's really hard to turn things around so long as American companies can, you know, move jobs to China or to India.
So we face as a nation some very difficult questions, and I think we will have to - we all have to think very, very hard what are we going to do to create jobs, what are we going to create the middle-class jobs of old that could really support families.
CONAN: And to some degree is that reluctance to hire psychological? We've seen three springs in a row where things started to look up, things started to look pretty good, and then it dived come the summer heat.
GREENHOUSE: Yes. You know, we could all blame Angela Merkel. I think the main reason, Neal, is that, you know, things will be picking up in the U.S., and then Europe's economy would face this new crisis, you know, which starts stalling, and that would, you know, hurt the world's markets and discourage American business owners. You know, it would hurt their confidence, and they say why should I hire more people, things don't look very good out there. There's this kind of corrosive tension worry, you know, worry out there, and they don't have the, you know, so-called animal spirits to go out there and hire more people.
You know, sometimes I think it would be great if, you know, a million CEOs of different businesses would all sign a pact that I'll hire two more people over the next week or over the next two weeks, and that would add two million people, you know, to the workforce, and that would create consumer - more consumer buying power, and that would help stores and help restaurants. And their business would boom, and then they might hire more people. But I think the momentum, the animal spirits, the excitement, you know, is lacking, and I think a big question mark is what is going to turn things around?
You know, the government, Washington isn't doing much to create jobs. You know, China's economy seems to be stalling a bit. Europe's economy seems to be stalling a bit. It will be hard for us to do much on the export front. You know, American consumers are really strapped. Their debt levels are still high. They're not going to go out and run and spend a lot of money to turn things around. So, unfortunately, it seems that our economy might be heading to a slower rate, even a stall.
CONAN: Here's an email from Kevin in Littleton, Colorado. I was managing sales at several new home communities in Colorado. Myself and others knew there was going to be some sort of market adjustment. In 2007, my life as I knew it ended. I lost my job in real estate, took a full-time job working retail at a big-box store. I'm working two jobs and making about 50 percent of what I used to. I have a bachelor's degree in chemistry and math. I thought that would help me in my job search - forget it. My American dream is to hold on and will continue to be so. The housing market recovering is not going to do that. As Americans, we need to focus on major fundamental changes in our own economy and how we do business.
We're talking about the downwardly mobile too many millions of Americans long-term unemployed and underemployed. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let me reintroduce our guest: Steven Greenhouse, labor and workplace correspondent for The New York Times. And let's see if we get Rachel(ph) on the line. Rachel calling us from Sioux Falls in South Dakota.
RACHEL: Yes. Thank you. OK. I'm one of these people too, and I hope I can sound more positive when that gentleman said that, you know, we're all getting too negative. I work in the health care field, kind of specialized. I'm a child life specialist. We help kids with the difficulties of hospitalization, end-of-life issues, things like that. And I have been unemployed for four and a half years. I worked as a substitute teacher. I was in upper management and very well-known in my field.
But there are plenty of younger women or men - there's very few males out - but there are plenty of younger people who now can take my job and aren't at the top of the pay scale. I'm in my car right now to pick up my girls, and I have one bar of gas and 50 cents in my pocket. And that's what I have, and I got really excited yesterday because I'm going to be working a concession stand this weekend at a softball tournament. I substitute teach, and it is so hard not to get discouraged.
I actually just wrote a mission statement for myself this morning that said I will turn my negative thoughts into positive thoughts so I can continue to live with abundant love and hope that my three daughters can see that again because it's not because we don't try.
CONAN: No. I know.
RACHEL: We try hard.
CONAN: How much do you think you're going to make at the concession stand?
RACHEL: Ten dollars an hour.
CONAN: Minimum wage.
RACHEL: Yeah. Minimum wage is actually lower than that here, but yeah. And I work as a substitute teacher, but, of course, I don't get any jobs in the summertime. I have a daughter with a pre-existing medical condition, so thank God, there are some people who realize - and I worked public health for many years and along that line as well. You know, I always hear people say, how can you work with freeloaders, this, that, the other thing, and I would always say to them if you think that waiting in a waiting room for, you know, 30 hours when you are sick as a dog on a really hard chair is taking advantage - and now my gas light thing just showed up. It's - I have been very discouraged in the last year, and I am trying to stay really positive.
CONAN: I hear you. I hear you.
RACHEL: And I'm really trying to recreate myself. I mean, I've always been in the helping field, and I'm hoping to, you know, work - there's a large refugee population here, and I think if I can just get some grants, then I can do the work I do with those children because they come into this country and just get sent straight to school. Nobody has worked with the traumas in their lives.
CONAN: I understand.
RACHEL: But, you know, I...
CONAN: I can hear you. Thanks. Good luck.
RACHEL: Thank you.
CONAN: And drive carefully please.
RACHEL: I will. Thank you.
CONAN: All right. Bye. Steven Greenhouse, we just have a few seconds left, but the plights so many people face, and as you say to some degree invisible, not seen by - a lot of places in the country, it seems to doing to be OK.
GREENHOUSE: That's true. I just want to say to Rachel. Rachel, I admire you. I admire your courage. It's really hard. You're fighting. It's hard to remain positive but do remain positive. You know, there's something wrong with the economy, and as a result, there are, you know, 13 million unemployed people. It could be you. It could be me. It could be lots of people. It's not your fault. You know, try to keep your head up. Try to be a good proud mother. I'm sure you're trying your hardest to do that.
Now, just to add, Neal, yes, you know, there - 92 percent of the population is not unemployed. Ninety-two percent of the population is working, and they're generally doing pretty well, although sometimes wages are stagnant. Many of them have part-time jobs. But I think one of the problems we face as a nation is that, you know, the 92 percent who are working often forget about the plight of the 8.2 percent who are unemployed. And, you know, look at what's happening in Washington nowadays. There's much more urgency, excitement about, you know, passing a tax cut, for instance, than, you know, passing legislation that would help seriously reduce the number of unemployed.
CONAN: Steven Greenhouse, as always, thanks very much for your time.
GREENHOUSE: Nice to be here. Thanks much, Neal.
CONAN: Steven Greenhouse, labor and workplace correspondent for The New York Times, with us from our bureau in New York. Coming up, NPR's Deborah Amos on the Syrian border near - in Turkey and the continued violence and life for Syrians inside and outside their country. Stay with us for that. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.