15-38 Segment 1: Making It in an Unfair Economy

Synopsis: Although unemployment is down across the nation, there are still pockets of workers who have been unemployed for years, with no hope of ever finding a good job. Our guest researched the sociological effects of long-term unemployment on out-of-work autoworkers in Michigan, and found out that the hurt, humiliation and family problems that unemployment brings aren’t just about the financial losses. He also discusses how the global economy is making employment more difficult in the U.S., and suggests some ways to alleviate the burden of the unemployed and help all workers gain good, secure employment.

Host: Gary Price. Guest: Victor Tan Chen, Asst. Prof. of Sociology, Virginia Commonwealth University, founding editor of In the Fray magazine, author of Cut Loose: Jobless and Hopeless in an Unfair Economy.

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The Sociological Impact of Long-Term Unemployment

Gary Price: We keep hearing that the recession is over, unemployment is down and business profits are up. That’s cold comfort to the millions of people who are still out of work and have been for years. We can imagine the financial toll long-term unemployment can take on an individual and families, but is there more to it than just the numbers? Victor Tan Chen wanted to find out. He’s an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University, and founding editor of In the Fray magazine. Chen went to Michigan to study unemployed autoworkers in one of the most depressed economies in the country. He published his findings in his book, Cut Loose: Jobless and hopeless in an unfair economy. He says that he was looking for the human stories behind the financial ones…

Victor Tan Chen: In my book I tell the stories of folks who have been out of work for a long time and what impact it has on their sense of their selves, not just in terms of their identity, because work is so central to our identity, but also in terms of their ability to provide for their families, their relationships with their spouses and with their children and so on. I think this gets lost in the conversation when we’re focused on the job numbers or focused on the ups and downs of unemployment rates. We’re not understanding the real world consequences, I think, to the extent that we should be.

Price: Chen started his work in Michigan in 2008 – at the height of the recession – when car companies were teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. He found plenty of stories there from the long-time autoworkers who suddenly found themselves out of a job…

Chen: We went through the 80s and there was a huge crisis for auto and for manufacturing, more generally you had factories shutting down across the country, you had communities hit hard by the loss of so many jobs. And this was because of foreign competition, because of automation and so on. Well that story is happening to the entire economy, to workers of all kinds – blue collar and white collar. And even if you have an education today it’s not a ticket, necessarily, to the middle class.

Price: Chen says that even highly educated professionals are feeling the pinch: Many radiologists’ tests are farmed out to India where they can be read more cheaply, and some lawyers are having their document reviews done by computers instead of human editors, again, to cut costs. But the autoworkers Chen studied really went through the emotional wringer. One long-time, talented and very loyal worker named John was set adrift when his job buffing fenders disappeared…

Chen: He worked hard for decades in construction and in the auto industry. He was abandoned as a kid by his parents. He was raised by his grandmother and he had a hole in him, which was filled, to some extent by his work. He said my job was like my mother and father. It was something that meant a lot to him. He had friendships through that work that were meaningful to him. But suddenly he was cut loose when he lost his job and it was a moment of betrayal for him and also a sense of uncertainty because how would he provide for his family anymore? What would he do to find another good job that could support his children? These are all uncertainties.

Price: Long-term unemployment can have negative effects on family relationships that will haunt spouses and children for years to come. Royce and Elena are a couple with children that Chen profiles in the book. Over a period of years Royce would lose and then regain his job at a plating plant near Detroit. Finally, the company closed the plant for good and Elena became the sole breadwinner. Chen says the financial situation and the psychological aspects of unemployment created a lot of friction in the family…

Chen: It was a big blow to Royce’s sense of self, his identity as both a contributing member of society and also provider to his family, to his children and to his wife. And there were yelling matches that they had, or shouting because of all the financial tensions that they had and also the psychological sense of low self-esteem that Royce was experiencing because of the situation. And their children suffered because of that. And, again, it goes to the kind of social cost of unemployment. His son, huddling in the corner while this screaming is going on between them, because tensions are such at a peak when you are barely making it. And this is a problem for a lot of households going through tough economic times, since the recession, especially.

Price: Royce also blamed himself for not reading the “signs” that the auto industry was in trouble, and not planning for a day when he might be laid off. When companies make changes, and economies hit rough spots the entire community can suffer. Chen says it doesn’t have to be so drastic, though. He studied how the citizens in Canada fared during the recession and found that because of policies in place, those who became unemployed there weren’t left in as deep hole as their American counterparts…

Chen: Americans know about the single-payer health care system in Canada where the government covers the cost of care, and that made a huge difference for unemployed workers there. For my American workers, one of them had to go to the E.R. and racked up a thousand-dollar bill, a debt that he couldn’t pay. And, you know, paying for health care when you’re basically just staying afloat in this economy or just struggling to do that is another kind of burden that the unemployed workers do not need.

Price: What can we do to help the American worker? Strengthen the social safety net is one thing. Chen says that we also need to create more jobs here and not ship so many overseas. Politicians can all get on board with job creation, but not with Chen’s suggestions about how to do it…

Chen: We, I think need to have government more involved as it did in the New Deal period to create employment and guarantee people work if they’re willing to work in that period, you know, through the Works Progress Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps. Those gave people jobs and it gave them dignity, and I think we’ve moved culturally away from that.

Price: He says that not too many decades ago, government was more focused on job creation. Policies like the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment bill were supported by both political parties. The job culture has changed since then. Now it’s hyper-judgmental, competitive and relies heavily on evaluation testing and perceived “fitness for work.”

Chen: This kind of constant judgment leads to a fundamentally unhealthy way of looking at life. Because, you know there is enough wealth and prosperity in this country to provide a decent standard of living for everyone, but I think we get caught up in this struggle, this fight among ourselves, in order to get the bigger house and the bigger income and the more prestigious degree and so on. We get caught up in this game of status and material accumulation and we don’t think about the more important things in life, which are, as research shows, at the end of your life you care more about things like family and friends and what kind of difference you made in your life. It’s not about this status and money question. And so I think that it takes more than just policy. It takes some kind of movement to say this is not a sane and healthy way to live our lives, this constant competition and constant measuring of ourselves to who our co-workers and neighbors are and so on.

Price: Chen reminds us that blue-collar workers such as those he profiled in his book have felt the brunt of this competitive new culture in the past few decades. However, he sees their situation as a portent of what’s to come for more and more white-collar workers in the future if we don’t change soon. You can find out more about Victor Tan Chen’s study of autoworkers in Michigan and how it affects family, friends and the community, in his book, Cut Loose, available in stores and online. He also invites listeners to his website at Victor Tan Chen.com. For more information about all of our guests, you can log onto our site at Viewpoints online.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on i-Tunes and Stitcher. I’m Gary Price.