Help Wanted is our new series dedicated to exploring America’s jobs crisis. It will continue on the first Friday of every month through Election Day 2012 to coincide with the jobs report.
There’s a good deal of (justified) celebration over this week’s economic news. The unemployment rate has finally started moving downwards, dropping to 8.6% this week — lower than it’s been in years.
But amidst the good news, Need to Know examines a different metric of America’s economy: the deep sense of uncertainty and fear that many employed workers feel today. There’s no official “uncertainty measure,” no way to quantify their experiences, but it’s clear that millions of American workers are watching nervously as their world shift beneath them. Whether it’s their salary, their benefits, or their job security, the life many people thought they knew has fundamentally changed.
Two months ago, correspondent John Larson and I traveled to Cuyahoga County in northeastern Ohio to visit with four of these middle-class workers. We met Lee Anne Chambers, a veteran public school teacher who’d been laid off last year and then re-hired this year, but at half her former salary and with none of the benefits. We met Michael and Maia Ballard, a husband and wife team who’re starting an electrical contracting company, and struggling to raise enough capital to grow their business. And we met Clyde Wilson, a former manufacturing worker who spent over a year and a half out of work, only to land a new, temporary job that paid less that he used to make and offered no benefits. These are people who don’t show up in any official government reports, but we’d argue that their experience making ends meet in today’s economy is as revealing as any official data.
Three weeks ago, we went back to Ohio to see how these four are doing, and we found some dramatic developments. Some were faced with wrenching choices: Would you take time off work to care for a dying grandmother, even if it jeopardized your much-needed health care benefits? In order to pay a looming property tax bill, would you be willing to sell a beloved family pet? These are just a few of the kinds of dilemmas facing middle-class workers all over the country today. So while we may take some comfort in today’s unemployment data, it’s worth listening to the stories of these people’s lives to see a fuller picture of today’s economy.
Help Wanted: The uncounted millions