Unemployment rate’s untold stories

Peter Ruark photo

Peter Ruark

It’s Labor Day once again, and as Harry scurries about getting things ready for his annual family cookout, he tries to squeeze in a few moments of reflection on the state of labor in Michigan.

He brings this year’s Labor Day Report from the Michigan League for Human Services out onto the deck, and reads that Michigan has had the highest unemployment rate in the nation for 49 out of the past 52 months, and that the current unemployment rate is still more than 13 percent.

As he waits for the coals in the grill to heat up, he skims and realizes that 41 percent of Michigan’s unemployed workers—and nearly 50 percent of African American unemployed workers—have been unemployed for six months or longer.

Harry sips a Michigan brew and puts the meat on the grill, thinking about his friends and neighbors who were laid off, but were lucky enough to not be unemployed. The guy at church who got his hours cut to part time kept his job, to be sure, but has sure had a helluva time paying the mortgage.

He reads in the Labor Day Report that one-fourth of all part-time workers last year wanted to work full time but could not because of the economy. The unemployment rate doesn’t include these people like his church friend.

Harry thinks of his neighbors. One lost her job last year because the shop where she worked went out of business. She tried for the next several months to find another job, and finally gave up in frustration. She now stays home and volunteers at her children’s school, but hopes to look for work again in the future when the job market is friendlier.

Then there is the single mother across the street who had to stop working because she no longer has reliable evening child care, and the only jobs she can find are during the evening. She applied for public assistance, which is now her only means of support for her family. She uses this downtime to get some training at the local community college, so that when the economy gets better she will be able to find solid daytime work. Neither of these neighbors is counted in the unemployment rate.

The relatives finally arrive for the picnic, and Harry’s niece tells him how she lost her manager position at the box store and now works for a fast food chain earning only one-third of her former wages.  Harry shows her the Labor Day Report and tells her that her wages would not bring her family out of poverty.

She is glad that her husband has not lost his job, but is worried that if he does, she would not be able to support her husband and young daughter on her fast-food wages alone.  She is also not counted in the unemployment rate.

As folks eat their lunch and socialize, Harry’s brother mentions that he hopes next year’s Labor Day Report shows a decrease in long-term unemployment and in the share of workers who are part time for economic reasons. His aunt points out that the end of the report lists some things that Michigan could do better to support workers and their families, such as increasing funding for adult education and vocational training, modernizing the Unemployment Insurance system, and strengthening Michigan’s social safety net for those who don’t qualify for unemployment benefits.

Finally, sensing the conversation is going to turn to MSU’s  opening football game, Harry reminds everyone that we live in a representative democracy and that people might want to consider calling their state legislators to urge them to take action on some of these issues.

— Peter Ruark


One Response to Unemployment rate’s untold stories

  1. Sarah Clay says:

    Lackluster domestic demand is preventing the labor market from generating stronger jobs growth that would decisively lower the unemployment rate.

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