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Year in Review: Reporting on the Growing Ranks of the Unemployed

It’s been an odd year for anyone who, like your correspondent, makes a living in and around economics. Odd because, for me at least, there’s a version of survivor guilt: The worse the world has gotten, the more interest there’s been in what I have to say. I said to a finance professor friend not long ago, somewhat sheepishly: “We’re counter-cyclical.” (i.e., When the economy goes down, we go up.)

Waiting at a job fair

“Yes,” he beamed; “or you could say, we’ve got a negative beta” (like a stock that rises even more than the market sags).

On the one hand, being Economics Correspondent for the NewsHour this year has been remarkably invigorating. Producer Lee Koromvokis and I have been able to produce far more than ever before, due to the addition of our associate Diane Lincoln and support from the Sloan Foundation (not a plug; just an explanation). And obviously, there’s been more demand for stories from our beat.

On the other hand, chronicling the plight of America’s legions of un- and under-employed has been trying. Not as trying as what the jobless are going through, of course. But there is, in journalism, an unavoidable discomfort when you’re prying into someone else’s misery. When the gap between you and them grows, as with so many interviewees during the Great Recession, so does the discomfort. This year brought a special unease. During almost every unemployment story we did, nearly once a month, I found myself interviewing people whose immediate — and even long-term — work prospects seemed unusually grim. Yet their credo, recited repeatedly in group settings was the power of positive thinking. And so they would talk the talk on camera, pluckily recounting their networking “successes,” latching on to the affirmative. All it takes, they’d say, is to out-Avis the competition and just try harder. Maybe the most telling sequence came at Chicago’s Safer Foundation, which helps ex-cons find work. Here’s the testimony of one of them, extolling the training he’d been getting: “It’s all about being motivated and positive with yourself to know that you want to, you’re going to be, that better person, you’re going to be successful. This [training] is just for the skills that you need to make it.” But then I asked a skeptic named Larry, sitting at the same table: Was this perhaps a romantic take? “I believe he’s romanticizing the situation. Life is like they say – it’s like a box of chocolates. You don’t know what you’re get until you bite it – and it’s hard, very hard.” Another ex-prisoner chimed in: “I understand Larry’s point of view because I’ve seen people who have a dejected mind frame but we have to pull ourselves out of that by being optimistic. We have to have some type of faith which draws on a higher power.” I screwed up my courage. “You could say that this is an argument for cultivating a certain degree of self-delusion,” I said. And then, to the skeptic: “Are you simply unable to do that?” “Yeah, I believe so,” he answered with some resignation. “You probably hit the nail right on the head when you said that.” The story we were shooting never included this exchange – it would have made the piece too long. But it did feature a heart-breaking sequence with an extremely appealing young woman – Ebony Allen – being interviewed for a restaurant job. Out of work for two years, it seemed to be her one big break. WE were crushed when she didn’t get the job. (Shortly after that segment featuring Ms. Allen, we again featured the work of the Safer Foundation when we looked at how different groups of people — in this case, ex-cons and ex-CEOs — are facing difficulty in the job market. We even posted a few resumes from those profiled.) Thankfully, the year is ending on a more positive note. The pace of layoffs has slowed. The stock market has rallied. GDP is growing. It could be a “dead man’s bounce,” as the pessimists put it. Or maybe it’s the upturn so many have prayed for. But for the time being, the economy looks better. And though it’s nothing more than a bit of anecdata, on September 4, Ebony Allen started work at the I-57 Rib House on Chicago’s South Side. According to the restaurant, “she’s doing well.”

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