Sunday’s issue of The Oklahoman featured a compelling report by Paula Burkes on the struggles of several Oklahomans who have unexpectedly found themselves among the ranks of the unemployed, losing long-time jobs and struggling to regain their footing in an extremely unforgiving labor market. Each of the five profiled unemployed workers are struggling to keep themselves and their families afloat, while hoping that their job prospects improve quickly. In the case of Cindy Mason, who was laid-off four months ago after 29 years working for an Oklahoma City church, the change in circumstance has been abrupt and frightening:
“I’m scared spotless,” Mason, a homeowner, said. Given only two months’ severance, she pulled some money from her retirement account, canceled her YMCA membership and other nonessentials from her budget, is working a temporary job and looking like crazy for employment…
“I don’t want to lose my house, want to pay my bills and keep up my insurance,” she said.
The same day, The New York Times ran an opinion column by Barbara Ehrenreich, the author of the 2001 memoir Nickled and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. Ehrenreich revisits some of the low-wage workers and communities she profiled in her book and finds that, while the media has tended to focus on the emergence of the “nouveau poor” among those who were previously affluent before the recent economic collapse, for the “already poor” and the “always poor”, this recession has been especially tough. She cites data showing that blue-collar unemployment is increasing three times as quickly as white-collar unemployment, which is pushing many people who were already scraping to get by during the good times right off the cliff of financial stability.
The recession of the ’80s transformed the working class into the working poor, as manufacturing jobs fled to the third world, forcing American workers into the low-paying service and retail sector. The current recession is knocking the working poor down another notch — from low-wage employment and inadequate housing toward erratic employment and no housing at all.
Ehrenreich’s largely anecdotal stories are less of people rendered homeless than of overcrowding – families doubling or tripling up in crowded apartments, trailers, and mobile homes, moving in with parents, children, and more distant relatives, or camping out on couches and floors. Living in cramped and overcrowded quarters is stressful for all involved, and is cited, in combination with unemployment, as one of the causes of a reported spike in cases of domestic violence in many parts of the country.
Cindy Mason, featured in The Oklahoman article, states that, “I can’t even listen to the news anymore because I can’t hear what is said about unemployment.” Reading and listening to the stories about Cindy and others in circumstances like her’s isn’t easy and doesn’t offer any solutions, but at least offers us important glimpses into the real struggles that families are facing during these difficult days.