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Jobless and hopeless in America

By Carl E. Van Horn, Special to CNN
  • Work force researcher Carl E. Van Horn says recession broad catastrophe for workers
  • Rutgers survey shows many with no hope of finding work, regaining financial situation
  • Van Horn says core American belief that hard work will get you ahead has been shattered
  • Van Horn: U.S. needs new policies for fundamentally changed jobs landscape

Editor's note: Carl E. Van Horn is Professor of Public Policy and director of the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University. He co-directs, with Rutgers professor Cliff Zukin, the center's national Work Trends surveys that regularly gather information about the public's attitudes about work and the economy.

(CNN) -- The Great Recession has been an economic catastrophe for jobless and underemployed American workers and their families. The December jobs report issued Friday shows only modest private-sector job growth and offers slim hope that the nation's 15 million unemployed are going to find relief anytime soon.

Their financial reserves are exhausted; their job prospects nil; their family relations stressed; and, their belief in government's ability to help them is negligible. They feel hopeless and powerless, unable to see their way out of the ditch they find themselves in.

Joblessness not only leaves deep scars on people -- financially and psychologically -- but also has enduring effects on families, communities and societies. Beyond the personal suffering, the despair of unemployed workers undermines their trust of employers, the economy and government.

These are among the main findings from "The Shattered American Dream: Unemployed Workers Lose Ground, Hope, and Faith in their Futures," a research report prepared by the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University.

The Heldrich Center first interviewed a national sample of more than 1,200 unemployed workers who lost their jobs during the recession in August 2009. More than 900 were re-interviewed in March, and 764 were contacted again in November.

One-quarter of those first interviewed in August 2009 had found full-time jobs some 15 months later. Most of the "fortunate" re-employed accepted jobs for less pay and/or less benefits. Four in 10 had to change careers to gain employment.

Among those still unemployed, about six in 10 had been job hunting for at least a year, with fully one-third looking for more than two years. Roughly half of the unemployed believe another year will go by before they begin working again, if ever. By a margin of 2-to-1, unemployed workers fear they will never regain the financial position they had before the recession.

Millions of unemployed Americans, facing a situation not of their own making, have exhausted all ideas of what to do next to find work.

More than three-quarters of the long-term unemployed (76%) say they have "a lot less" in income and savings now, compared with when the recession began. Many have borrowed money from friends and family, sold possessions and gone without needed health care. The economic victims of the recession are enduring downwardly mobile lives.

The core American belief that people who work hard will get ahead has been shattered. Now the majority of the unemployed do not believe that simple hard work will guarantee success. A staggering number of those surveyed also worry that the national economy has undergone fundamental, lasting changes.

Nearly two-thirds think that older workers will not be able to retire when they want to (65%). More than half say it will become harder for young people to afford college (51%) and that workers will have to take jobs below their skill level (49%).

America's unemployed voice little confidence in the government's ability to help them. The survey, conducted after the national election in November, found that only 30% of the unemployed are more hopeful about an economic recovery because of the election. When the survey group was asked to choose between President Barack Obama and the Republicans in Congress about whom they trust to do a better job handling the economy, "neither" won at 41%. One third (32%) chose the president and far fewer -- just 17% -- picked congressional Republicans. Less than one in 10 trust "both."

Rather than blaming the victims of the Great Recession or each other, our political leaders need to find the foresight, wisdom and compassion to undertake long overdue reforms of the American education and work force development system.

Public policies designed to cope with the Great Depression more than 70 years ago will not be sufficient to overcome the obstacles faced by millions of unemployed and underemployed workers scrambling to find their way back from joblessness to meaningful work.

Instead, unemployed workers desperately need policies that provide long-term education and training programs at affordable cost as well as on-the-job training and subsidized employment that will encourage employers to keep people on the job instead of putting them out the door.

They also need access to health care while they are jobless. Let's hope that the new Congress can put aside political squabbling and work together to rescue American workers and the economy.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Carl E. Van Horn.