The Black Hole Gets Bigger, But Can Be Hard To See

Abby Zimet

The Labor Picture in February

In grim economic news yesterday, the U.S. lost another 651,000 jobs in
February, with unemployment surging to 8.1 percent. The figures, even worse than expected, moved pundits to blithely deem 2009 "probably a lost cause." That's easy to say for the pundits, who remain employed – or they wouldn't be around for all that punditry – and thereby immune from the bad news they're reporting. Alas, the same disconnect can afflict the rest of us still working, at least for now.
Since the recession began, the economy has lost a total of
about 4.4 million jobs, with more than half — some
2.6 million — disappearing in the last four months. Analysts say the "breathtaking" decline is so vast it may necessitate an essential restructuring of the economy, with many lost jobs simply disappearing.
That's the long view; the short view is alot of people hurting. The numbers are hard to grasp: Perhaps because of their sheer scale and relentlessness, it seems they can obscure rather than illuminate the painful realities they represent. A sort of news fatigue, second cousin to compassion fatigue, sets in. So much bad news becomes unimaginable news becomes old news becomes no news. 
For hundreds of thousands of people, of course, the awful numbers are real, and personal, and bread-and-butter, heat-or-medical-bills, behind-on-the-car-payments scary. As usual in the art of storytelling, their plight becomes vivid, not through numbers, but through individual stories – especially when part of the story is in fact the numbers.
Michigan's unemployment rate is over 10 percent, the highest in the country. Everywhere he looks for work, says Kim Allgeyer, a laid-off, 46-year-old machine toolmaker in Westland, Mich. who made assembly lines for Detroit automakers, there are too many people just like him.
people who do what I do in the Detroit area are a dime a dozen," he says. “Who’s going to put me to work? Where’s the work at? It’s just a great big black hole.”
According to a CD news story, the hole is even deeper for people considered less employable, and historically less visible in mainstream America: older, non-college-educated, minority males, ex-convicts. Not much new here, just more difficult than ever because of all the stricken competition.
Julie Sizemore, an ex-con from Danville, Ky., says she's looked for work at restaurants, gas stations, stores and offices. She just applied for a job at a tobacco outlet. So did four hundred other people. No go for Sizemore.
Clearly, the harrowing stories will continue to unfold for some time to come. More of us will fall. For those of us lucky enough to remain on solid if sloping ground, the least we can do is not just walk around the hole but lend a hand when we can, or at least an ear. What irony: For all Obama's talk of being one nation, maybe in the end what will bring us together, if we can get it together, is not our power or vastness or rich gifts, but our need, and our willingness to help each other through it.    

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