BOSTON — It hurt to see the barista behind the Starbucks’ counter.
He’d graduated in May, a Gold Key Honor Society student in the top 10 percent of his Emerson College class. Yet four months later, he was taking orders for non-fat, grande lattes from students with money to burn on such nonsense. Two Americas in a time of trouble.
I’m reminded regularly that the official unemployment rate, as bad as it is, grossly understates the magnitude of this country’s recession. Talented college graduates are on hold, waiting for a real first job. Working men and women face unpaid “furloughs,” measurable in the slow, continuing decline of “full-time” hours worked. And many who’ve managed to dodge cuts tread carefully at work.
Often ignored in the U.S. government’s official unemployment rate, 9.8 percent in today’s new figures, are numbers that paint an even worse picture. More than a third of the 15.1 million officially unemployed haven’t worked in a half year or more. Another 9.2 million are “involuntary part-time workers,” the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reports. And then there’s 2.2 million not counted because though they want a job, they’ve given up looking for awhile.
In other words, one in six American workers who want one can’t find a full-time job. And that’s the official version.
In the chorus in which I sing, I sit next to a piano tuner. He went two months this summer without a single client.
“I’m not in any of those statistics,” he says.
An alumnus of Emerson’s journalism program, who just won a major reporting prize, has also just been handed his second unpaid two-week furlough of the year. A senior judge I know says pressure is growing for Massachusetts state employees to “volunteer” to work some unpaid days. These acquaintances all count among the lucky ones: the full-time employed.
Other full-time workers, of course, always live on the margin. They can’t survive any pay cut, let alone a layoff. They work at their boss’ whims, intimidated if they don’t, or simply discarded by a system that puts bottom-line “productivity” over humanity.
The poster children of this group are the 98 maids fired last month by Boston’s three Hyatt Hotels. The Boston Globe reports that they were tossed out of jobs paying up to $15 an hour with health benefits so Hyatt could outsource to a Georgia company that pays its modern-day version of sharecroppers $8 an hour, no benefits.
Our governor has threatened a boycott of state business at the Hyatts. He should be sending in teams of inspectors to comb the hotels for health violations.
This is not the America I want to live in. Our government throws hundreds of billions at banks and their big bonus executives, but can’t afford a stimulus that puts average people back to work? We say we’re in a “jobless recovery,” but those without jobs don’t recover. They get angry, disillusioned. Hungry people steal. They get sick and burden our overburdened health care system by driving up everyone else’s costs. They lose hope.
Cheered by Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke’s assurances that the worst is over, most of us can choose to ignore them. But the cost may prove more than a guilty conscience.
Perhaps instead of traipsing off to Denmark, President Obama should have spent this week trotting out a 21st century version of the Civilian Conservation Corps — a Civilian Volunteer Corps. It could put tens of thousands forced into early retirement to work. They could care for the kids whose parents have no day care, train the unskilled for the new economy, help feed and care for the elderly, infirm and abandoned. Let’s stop dithering over health care and at least assure that those who can’t find work can go to the doctor. And let’s stop the flow of hundreds of billions into two unwinnable wars, reinvesting it instead in rebuilding our national economy.
Along the way, we can rebuild something equally vital that’s been lost in this country – a national sense of community and caring, a sense of “we,” which has been stripped bare by decades of “me.”