Long-Term Unemployment Hard To Dig Out From

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The pain of current unemployment rates has been keenly felt by the white working class, where men in particular have seen long-term jobs turn into long-term joblessness. It's a trend that hit black working-class men 30 years ago with the decline of the industrial economy, and the effects it had on families and neighborhoods then are happening again.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Even as the economy recovers, some Americans are going through long-term unemployment. And that is a historic change for a group of workers we will discuss next.

Statistically, the recession hit men especially hard. They had a lot of manufacturing jobs that went away. And some of the hardest hit are white men, guys who may have thought they were the backbone of the American workforce. To be clear, they're not the only group suffering here, but they're the group we're going to talk about here, because it has NPR news analyst Juan Williams looking at a recent historical parallel.

Juan, good morning.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Who's been through this story before, the story that seems to be affecting white men now?

WILLIAMS: Well, if you look back to the end of the 1970s, start of the 1980s, it's black men. Black men went through a period in which they saw a historic leap in terms of unemployment rates, especially older black men who were up then - you know, by about '83 - to about 12 percent, 13 percent unemployment.

And that's also the period when you saw a tremendous expansion in terms of young black men experiencing record levels of unemployment. This was during the course of that recession.

INSKEEP: Let's remember that historic period of time. There'd been the civil rights movement. There'd been improvement - there'd been a spread, rather, of union activity. There were a lot of blue collar jobs for African-Americans for a while. And these are the jobs - manufacturing jobs that went away as the economy shifted drastically in the early '80s, right?

WILLIAMS: Exactly, right. I think, you know, if you wanted a - sort of an icon at this moment, I think people might think of Michelle Obama's dad, you know, as someone who was working in a boiler room in Chicago. Hardworking guy, able to support his family, able to be a good dad, able to send his children to school.

That moment, in terms of black American life, is something that I heard about in a recent conversation with a top White House official, who was saying, you know, you look at that period and that you can trace, then, to the development in terms of not only high unemployment but out-of-wedlock births, absent dads, crime, drugs, deterioration of so many communities.

That was a tremendously crippling period for black American men - and one that they really haven't recovered from even as we go forward because, you know, black unemployment remains very high right now.

INSKEEP: I feel like you're telling me the back story of a lot of the news stories that I remember for the last 25 years, when you talk about higher crime and rising single motherhood and so forth.

So now you're focusing on white men, one of the groups here that seems to be going through a similar retrenchment. Serious, serious suffering, loss of manufacturing jobs. What are some of the possible effects of that?

WILLIAMS: Well, I mean, the effects now - and I think this is what the White House is picking on - the effects are quite similar in terms of increasing rates of out-of-wedlock births among white men, increasing rates of absent dads, lower marriage rates and the consequence it has for family formation.

This is a moment when all of a sudden, you see white men, who experienced half of all the job losses since '07 the country's lost 8 million jobs, half among white men. And when you think about blue collar white men, in specific, blue collar white men, who are about 11 percent of the workforce, lost over 36 percent of all the jobs.

So when you add that to the idea of the average length of unemployment now, being at a historic high - more than 31 weeks - what you're seeing is white men going through something very similar to what black men went through a long time ago, and it having the same consequential effect on sociological issues - and, I might add, on politics.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about the politics. What are some of the political effects, as best you can judge them?

WILLIAMS: Well, if you stop - you know, take something like the Tea Party movement in this country right now. There's a lot of anger at Wall Street bailouts, at stimulus packages that did more about public sector unemployment than private sector unemployment - specifically, manufacturing and construction, where these men lost so many of their jobs.

But in a recent New York Times poll about the Tea Party, for example, it said two-thirds of the men who identified as members of the Tea Party - of the people, I should say - who identify as members of the Tea Party, said that the recession had caused them a hardship or a major change of life. And 41 percent of white men, remember, voted for President Obama in '08. Now, his approval rating among white men is down in the mid-30s.

And those are people who say they are now less likely to vote for Democrats in the fall. So part of this, I think, is tied into what we see going on in terms of American politics - people who feel that this administration may be looking out for Wall Street, may be looking out for the poor or immigrants in terms of health-care reform, but not looking out for them.

INSKEEP: Juan, thanks very much.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR news analyst Juan Williams.

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