By Susan M. Sipprelle
Englewood, NJ, USA
Susan M. Sipprelle
Some problems are getting so old, no one in Washington seems to be paying attention anymore.
The Great Recession started in 2007 and officially ended in 2009. Yet, it continues to impact the economy and hamper its slow recovery. Almost 12 million Americans remain out of work, 4.1 million more than when the recession began, and 4.7 million of the unemployed have been out of work for six months or longer.
On the Sunlight Foundation's website, you can input a word and see how often members of Congress have mentioned it over a period of time. A search for the word "jobs" yields a graph that shows a dramatic decline in attention to the issue since 2011.
In April, when Sen. Amy Klobucher (D - Minn.) convened a hearing of the 19-member Joint Economic Committee on the problem of long-term unemployment in the United States, she was the only legislator in attendance at the hearing's start. Eventually, three others joined her, perhaps not coincidentally, after a journalist tweeted a photo of the empty Congressional seats at the hearing.
This poor turnout and lack of interest in the issue of unemployment shown by members of Congress is not unprecedented.
In June 2011, when Sam Newman, filmmaker, and I testified before the 22-member Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee about the findings of our online documentary project Over 50 and Out of Work only Sen. Tom Harkin (D - Iowa), committee chair, and Sen. Michael Enzi (R - Mont.), ranking member, were in attendance, although the galley was full. Later, three other Senators also dropped in on the meeting, but they were too late to watch our video testimony or hear our prepared remarks.
For most Americans, however, employment is a prime concern. In fact, the overwhelming majority of Americans believe that secure jobs are critical to achieving or hanging onto a middle-class lifestyle, according to a 2012 Pew Research report. In contrast, 20 years ago, most respondents answered that homeownership was the critical factor required to reach middle class status.
Long-term unemployment, defined as being out of work for six months or longer, is a desperate problem for 4.7 million people, most of whom are 50-plus. With increasing frequency, older unemployed Americans are describing their plight on our Over 50 and Out of Work Facebook page, as in the two comments excerpted below:
I've been out of work for almost 2 years. Doesn't seem that a college degree, years of experience, or an impeccable work history (never call in sick) matter anymore. Jobs I've applied for (hundreds of resumes & memberships in websites) don't generate responses, yet I've seen the same positions come back around again only after a short time. Who are these people hiring? Also, several interviews have resulted in no responses (letters, calls, or e-mails). The older worker is being snubbed for younger workers who, in most cases, require hefty training dollars. Why not save the money and pay an experienced, reliable 50+ employee?
One of the [outplacement] counselors told me privately that getting a full-time job at my age (58) was like hitting a hole-in-one on a golf course – possible but rare. I feel so useless! The skills I spent decades developing are so specialized, no one else wants them. My marriage is beginning to suffer as my wife can't fathom why I'm angry and depressed so much of the time. This is a cruel way to enter the so-called "golden years." My thoughts and prayers are with the rest of you engaged in the same struggle.
In 2011, Joe Carbone, president of southwestern Connecticut's regional workforce development board, founded Platform to Employment or P2E, an innovative five-week program designed for the long-term unemployed. It helps restore their self-confidence, update their skills and then graduate into short-term paid positions that are funded by private donors, not employers. If the program works optimally, employers hire P2E participants when their trial job placements end.
In early 2013, P2E reported on the success of its employment model. Eighty-seven percent of its graduates had transitioned back into full-time work, but the number of long-term unemployed that the program had been able to help to date was woefully small – 131. Even the program's planned pilot expansion to 10 more cities will barely begin to address the need that exists to help boost millions of older Americans back to work both for their own benefit and the economy's.
"We're just ignoring them, ignoring them," Carbone said about the long-term unemployed, in a May 2013 PBS interview. He continued, "I can't imagine that we would ever leave any of our citizens, any of our brothers and sisters, to be part of a process that's defining them as hopeless. And that's what's going on."
At a recent graduation assembly, I, with many other parents and their children, sat and listened to inspirational words targeted at young people who will soon enter the working world. When an English teacher read aloud from "Our Youth" by John Ashbery (1962), I was startled. The poem unexpectedly tolled out a warning about the consequences of writing off the long-term unemployed and neglecting the long-run repairs that our economy needs to ensure that there will be good jobs in the future for all Americans of all ages:
It's true that we have not avoided our destiny
By weeding out the old people.
Our faces have filled with smoke. We escape
Down the cloud ladder, but the problem has not been solved.