WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING - Rural Economies Can No Longer "Hunker-Down"

(05/05/2008)

During the current "almost recession," which filters down to skyrocketing gasoline and food costs, Calhoun and West Virginia's rural counties, among the poorest in America, will likely be areas that suffer the most.

Most of Calhoun's work force requires driving 100-150 miles a day to make a living.

Former so-called recessions had built-in wiggle room for such historically poor areas to hunker-down and survive.

This time around, hunkering may be more like falling flat to the earth and groveling.

The steady loss of "good jobs" by less-educated workers have left them more vulnerable to recession than at any time in nearly 30 years, and signs are mounting that a recession is either already here or coming soon.

High-school dropouts and even high-school graduates who lack specialized job training have seen their already limited employment prospects steadily decline during America's decades-long shift from a manufacturing-based economy to a service economy.

The jobs that once bolstered working-class Americans have mostly been shifted to foreign countries through the globalized market.

Not long ago, Americans who were unable to attend college could count on finding local factory jobs after high school.

The lucky ones landed in muscular industries such as aviation, steel and automobiles, while others found work on assembly lines building durable goods.

These and other "good jobs" were the signature byproducts of a robust economy that once was the envy of the world.

The jobs provided stability and decent wages that allowed families to buy homes, provide for their children and retire in modest comfort.

The Center for Economic and Policy Research defines a "good job" as one with health insurance, a pension plan and earnings of at least $17 per hour.

That works out to about $34,000 a year, the inflation-adjusted median income for men in 1979, when U.S. manufacturing jobs numbered 19.6 million, an all-time high.

Most of those jobs are gone.

The economy has lost nearly 6 million manufacturing jobs — 52,000 in February alone.

Among them were many of the 3.5 million "good jobs" lost from 2000 to 2006, according to John Schmitt, a senior economist at CEPR.

As those jobs disappeared, many blue-collar workers were forced to take jobs with far less pay and benefit security, many with no or poor health insurance.

This caused the share of high-school graduates with "good jobs" to fall from about one in five in 1979 to one in seven in 2005, Schmitt said.

For those who didn't finish high school, these workers with good jobs fell from roughly one in seven to one in 25 over the same period.

With a recession certain to accelerate job losses, experts say that less-educated workers who lack marketable job skills likely will have the hardest time holding onto their jobs and the toughest time finding new employment.

"With the economy poised for a recession, or in one, and with savings diminished and home equity at risk, this is a particularly challenging time because there's no cushion for many of these workers.

For them, their job is everything," said Thea Lee, the policy director for the AFL-CIO.

"People in the middle and at the bottom (of the wage scale) are going to be the bulk of the victims during these hard times," Schmitt said. "They're proportionally going to take a much bigger hit."


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