Not for decades have so many been unemployed in the U.S. It hits those who haven’t even really begun the hardest.
Thomas Capdepera wears wide, much too large jeans, over them a black hoodie, size XXL. It appears a bit that his huge body wants to disappear in it. His hair is shaved on the sides. When he speaks, he does so quietly; if in doubt he would rather say a sentence too little than too much. He leans on the iron railing in the large lobby, which is immersed in the dim light of the cold neon tubes — the charm of public offices. A sign on the wall promises justice for all. It is early afternoon; Capdepera waits for the pouring rain outside the door to stop. He has time, because what is waiting for him?
Here in the Dyckman Job Center at the northernmost tip of Manhattan, just before the city falls into the Hudson and goes over into countrified urban fringe, many stories sound like that of Capdepera. At age 17 he flunked out of high school; he never began a second attempt. Since then he has struggled along with odd jobs, a few months in construction, then pizza delivery, whatever came along. Finally, in May, he got into “trouble” at his last job, he relates; his boss kicked him out. Since then he has been unemployed, but somehow the money that he received from his family and earned with small jobs was enough. “Now it’s getting tight,” says Capdepera. Without food stamps, as they are called here, it would no longer be possible. After all, he has family, a 5-year-old daughter. In three weeks he will turn 25.
Even years after the financial collapse, the U.S. is still embedded in crisis. The 8.7 million jobs that were destroyed by the collapse of the financial system are only coming back very slowly. Just recently, Bank of America announced massive job cuts; the U.S. Postal System plans to cut 120.000 jobs. 9 percent of all Americans are still without a job; over 40 percent of them have been looking for a job for at least six months. In New York alone, 1.8 million of the roughly 8 million inhabitants are currently living on food stamps: 9 percent of them are between the ages 18 and 24. It is “alarming,” says an employee of the Job Center in Dyckman, who wishes to remain anonymous, how the number of those seeking help has risen.
It hits those who are just entering the work force the hardest. They are between 16 and 24, have less experience and poorer contacts than the older applicants with whom they are competing. [Daniel] Hamermesh, professor of economics and employment market expert at the University of Texas, brings the dilemma to a point: “If the economy is doing well, they are the last to be hired. If it is doing poorly, they are the first to go.” The consequence: In 2010 the unemployment rate among the 16- to 24-year-olds in the U.S. stood at 18.4 percent — the highest figure since records began in 1948. In 2008 it was still 14 percent. Every fourth person among 16- to 19-year-olds is without a job. The employment rate of America’s youth sank from 70.2 percent in 2007 to a mere 59.5 percent in the past year.
A similar decrease for the total population and the country would have another 14 million unemployed in one fell swoop. If one includes those who have long since given up looking or find no full-time job, the number stands considerably over 20 percent. “It is a disaster,” summarizes Heidi Shierholz. The economist is an expert for labor market issues at the liberal think tank Economic Policy Center in Washington. The young generation had the enormous bad luck to be born into the middle of a crisis. “There are plainly and simply no jobs out there.”
Unemployment hits many young people harder than others in the population. They have not had time to save anything. The government security net, already one of the thinnest and most patched-together in the world, lets many young people fall through the cracks. Anyone who doesn’t find a permanent job after high school gets no unemployment benefits at all and must try to keep one’s head above water with food stamps — and even they are only issued on strict grounds and for a limited time. “The social system was never intended for this group,” says Daniel Hamermesh. At least there will be primary health care for all who fall under a certain income level beginning in 2014.
Yet the consequences are more long-term and often hardly measurable. “If a young person makes a bad start in the job market, it often takes a long time to get back on track,” says Heidi Shierholz. The first job is often critical for the whole further course of one’s career. “Here’s where the network develops that leads to the next steps,” according to the economist. If young people would become unemployed in this phase, they would be somewhere completely different after the recovery of the job market than where they actually should be.
Above all, problem cases like Thomas Capdepera fall by the wayside. The unemployment of those who do not have a high school diploma has doubled nationwide to 21 percent; however, the highly qualified in the country also feel the decline.
Like Ramon Torres. The now 28-year-old was born in Puerto Rico, where he studied information technology. Later he went to California because the pay in his home country was poor and jobs in the computer sector were rare. When the crisis also reached his company, he was one of the first who had to go. He returned to Puerto Rico, built websites. “I did everything that brought in money,” tells Torres. Just under a year ago he moved thousands of kilometers away for the next job, this time to New York. Here he worked as a web developer for a small startup company. “We were on a growth course; everything was going well,” relates the programmer in his shared apartment in Brooklyn. When he went into the office a few days ago, his boss called him over. “We must part with you here and now,” it was simply put. A few minutes remained for him to clean out his desk, turn in his key and leave the building. Now he will receive money for three weeks. Then he must have found a new job or apply for unemployment benefits. However, the $405, the maximum paid in New York, is hardly enough to finance the expensive life in the city: His room in the shared apartment alone costs $1,200.
A college or university degree is by no means a guarantee for survival in the job market, says Heidi Shierholz. Education in the U.S. is expensive and only worked because the graduates of colleges and universities were certain of good jobs. “This contract no longer exists,” thinks the economist. For many, the expensive course of study has become an additional burden, especially since more than half of all college students work on the side to even be able to afford an education. And side jobs are rare since the crisis.
Barack Obama now wants to give young people their hope back. At the moment, the president is fighting in Congress for a new $447 billion job initiative. With tax deductions and massive investments in the ailing infrastructure of the country, Obama wants to put the nation back on its feet. Tax giveaways for companies that hire young people and the summer jobs program should help students. Expert Heidi Shierholz doubts that this will considerably improve the situation. Of the 4.3 million jobs that are supposed to be created by 2012, only 2.6 million are actually new jobs. The program is otherwise just saving jobs that would have disappeared without the initiative. And even if it goes uphill in the coming years, the young would need longer to recover.
The sky over the job center in northern Manhattan has cleared. Thomas Capdepera sets off for home, to his daughter. What he plans? “I have no idea.” Maybe, he says in addition, before he opens the glass door, he will still make up his high school diploma, sometime.
*Editor’s Note: A number of quotations in this article, accurately translated, could not be verified.