The New York Times

April 7, 2003

Workers Who Feel Discarded


"I've gone through a few stages of depression and frustration," said Dina Ziskin, who is 31 and lives in Brooklyn. "Why is it taking me so long? I panic a lot. I did not think it would be this difficult to find a job."

"I can't tell you the number of divorces we hear about," said Janelle Razzino, who runs an executive search firm in Westwood, N.J. "The job loss in these cases was probably the final straw. Nobody needs that kind of pressure, stress, whatever."

"It's like someone ran an electric shock through your system," said Dr. Steve Korner, a psychologist in Cresskill, N.J. "People are anxious, depressed, feeling unwanted, powerless. The job market is really awful for a lot of people."

Among the many things overshadowed by the war is the substantial human toll that is quietly being taken by the faltering U.S. economy. Putting Americans to work is not part of the agenda of the Bush administration, and the fallout from this lack of interest is spreading big time.

The U.S. is hemorrhaging jobs. On Friday the government reported that 108,000 more jobs were lost in March. Some 2.4 million jobs have vanished since the nation's payrolls peaked two years ago.

The jobless rate held steady at 5.8 percent last month, but that is extremely deceptive. People who have become discouraged and stopped looking for work are not counted when the unemployment rate is calculated. This keeps the official rate artificially low. There are five million people in the discouraged category and their ranks are growing.

David Leonhardt, in an article in The Times on Saturday, wrote:

"Last month's job losses cut across almost every sector of the economy. Manufacturers reduced employment for the 36th consecutive month. The vast services industry, usually a source of stability, has cut 121,000 jobs in the last six months, with department stores, restaurants, airlines and hotels all paring their payrolls in March. After adding jobs through last year, local and state governments have also begun to make cuts to close budget deficits."

There is not much of a sense anywhere that things are about to improve. "It seems to me that the recovery's been six months away for two years running," said John Challenger, chief executive of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, the international outplacement firm. "The latest version of that is that when the war ends the euphoria will trigger enough optimism on the part of either consumers or businesses to finally turn things around. I'm certainly dubious about that."

The loss of a job is like a blow to the solar plexus of an individual family. Grand plans give way to a state of emergency in which it is not at all clear how the rent or the mortgage will be paid, or how the bill collectors can be satisfied from month to month, then week to week, and finally day to day.

"I've got my own little Ponzi scheme going," a distraught former executive told me last week. "When the credit card companies pull the plug on me, I'm finished."

The executive, who asked not to be identified, said he was depressed but could not afford to see a therapist.

John Sampson helps run a support network in northern New Jersey for telecommunications experts who have lost senior positions. "This is the bleakest employment picture I've ever seen," he said. "The number of people looking for jobs is overwhelming. We've got a whole bunch of people now who are doing everything from selling cars to driving limousines to working in retail."

Mr. Sampson, who is 62, said he's been out of work for more than a year.

There doesn't seem to be much awareness in the Bush administration of the terrible distress of the unemployed American worker. This is an ache that does not extend to the gilded towers of the very wealthy, which is where the administration has always focused its concern.

The White House response to the latest job loss figures is the same response it has had all along to bad economic news: more tax cuts are the cure.

Mr. Sampson, who described himself as coming from a "Republican background," said he feels the American worker has been abandoned. "While I'm not a big Bill Clinton fan," he said, "I liked what his labor secretary had to say. Robert Reich always talked about the work force as a national asset. It is. We should treat it that way." 

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