The Agony Of Unemployment

Business and economics reporters can often get lost in the numbers. It's easy to talk about how bad 10% unemployment is, but it's harder to pinpoint the emotions that those suffering through dire economic situations are feeling, or how being jobless has changed people's lives. Today, the New York Times has a good piece exploring the grim reality of too many Americans who have experienced prolonged unemployment. I thought it was worth highlighting and considering some of its content.

As a part of the article, the NY Times worked with CBS to poll unemployed adults. Its findings, while not altogether surprising, confirm that being jobless takes a hefty toll emotionally, psychotically and even physically. Here are a few results:

- 69% reported more stress
- 55% reported trouble sleeping
- 54% have cut back on health care
- 48% reported emotional or mental health issues
- 46% felt embarrassed or ashamed

It's affecting families -- not just individuals:

About 4 in 10 parents have noticed behavioral changes in their children that they attribute to their difficulties in finding work.

According to the Times, roughly half of those surveyed indicated that being unemployed has caused "fundamental changes" in their lives. This isn't your average cyclical recession where the unlucky few collect unemployment for a few months and find a job shortly thereafter. The kind of fundamental changes we're talking about include foreclosures due to a prolonged lack of income -- not wacky mortgage products. It includes people whose lifetime earning potential has taken a major hit because of structural changes in the economy. Some Americans are suddenly finding themselves living in an entirely different world than they did just a few years ago. According to the poll results, about a quarter have received food stamps.

What I find quite troubling is discouragement like this:

"Everything gets touched," said Colleen Klemm, 51, of North Lake, Wis., who lost her job as a manager at a landscaping company last November. "All your relationships are touched by it. You're never your normal happy-go-lucky person. Your countenance, your self-esteem goes. You think, 'I'm not employable.' "

Of course, the vast majority of these jobless Americans are employable -- just not right now, given the ongoing economic turmoil. Hiring will eventually ramp up in most industries, though some -- like construction -- may never see the kind of market they enjoyed a few years ago. Yet, I worry the psychological effect that prolonged unemployment has on some Americans could cause permanent problems. Most of the layoffs that have occurred during the recession have little or nothing to do with job performance. But on some level, even if you get laid off purely because your company needed to cut costs, you feel like it must have something to do with you.

Unfortunately, there's no easy solution. The government throwing money at the problem through stimulus hasn't worked particularly well so far. Pretty much every economic prediction I've read says unemployment will remain elevated for an extended period, despite Washington's best efforts. We'll be lucky if it slips below 8% by the end of 2010. It might not dip below 7% before 2011. In the meantime, it's important for newspapers to write stories like this, because it's easy to just look at the numbers and shake your head. It's far more meaningful to understand what Americans are actually going through.