The economic outlook is rosy, at least for people at the top of the ladder.
The number of U.S. millionaires rose 16 percent in 2009, according to a new report by Chicago-based research firm Spectrum Group. Some 7.8 million households had a net worth of more than $1 million, excluding the value of their home. Part of the reason is that higher-income households typically have more exposure to the stock market, and the S&P 500 has risen about 70 percent since hitting bottom on March 9 of last year.
Moreover, in terms of employment, there was no recession for the highest-income households in the fourth quarter last year. The unemployment rate for people in the top 10 percent of income — those earning more than $150,000 a year — was just 3 percent, according to the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston. For the bottom 10 percent of earners — workers who bring home less than $12,500 annually — the unemployment rate was 31 percent.
“For the most part it is driven by increasing skills and earnings at the top and decreasing skills at the bottom,” says Carol Graham, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Technology and high-skill jobs have driven our growth in a global economy, not low-skilled jobs. It plays out in the economic crisis in unemployment in terms of who is getting laid off.”
Mechanization and outsourcing also play a role, says Cornell University economist Robert Frank, who studies income polarization. The manufacturing sector has lost 5.6 million jobs since 2000.
“The more vulnerable you are to your job being outsourced, the higher the unemployment rate will be,” Frank says. “Even though the correlation is not perfect, the tendency is that the more education you have, the more likely you are to be doing a job that’s complicated and involved, making it harder to outsource or mechanize.”
Roxanne Baird, 49, of Chattanooga, Tenn., is one American buffeted by labor trends. She says she took home $2,200 last year working for a temporary help service that offered factory and warehouse jobs on an as-needed basis at $7.25 an hour. Baird refused one assignment because she couldn’t find a reliable daycare center to take her 6-year-old early enough to get to work by 7 a.m. She missed a few days at a warehouse job while her son’s father had open-heart surgery. And she made the mistake of calling a warehouse supervisor directly at the woman’s request, she says, which violated the rules of the temp service. The service terminated her last August, and she was denied unemployment compensation. She appealed and lost.
A decade earlier, before a divorce, Baird was a middle-class homeowner, working occasional part-time jobs in factories and for the U.S. Postal Service.
“When (my husband) and I split up the only thing I came out of marriage with was what I had when I went in — my furniture, books, record albums.”
Baird pays $280 to rent the land under the trailer she owns, and she has begun learning the ins and outs of federal, state and local assistance programs and non-profit organizations. “I have a day-timer and take copious notes about who I called, what they said and who they recommend I contact, and summarize things at end of the month,” she says.
Every state offers resources for the unemployed through offices funded by the Workforce Investment Act; workers can find a local office by entering their zip codes on the Labor Department’s CareerOneStop Web site. Services range from welfare and social assistance to help with job searches, cover letters, resumes and interview preparation.
“Be persistent and clear about what your needs are,” suggests Paula Gomez Farrell, director of workforce development for the city of Denver. “The caseloads for people receiving welfare and employment assistance have doubled, but we laid people off last fall,” she says, adding the situation is similar for many budget-strapped cities and states.
Gomez Farrell advises workers to research emerging opportunities. “Colorado got several federal grants around the development of green jobs, but there is no clear definition of what one is,” she explains. “Workers can do research on the Internet at the library. If you are in construction and the skilled trades, you need to understand what makes a job green, what skills people are looking for that are different, and then craft a resume that responds to addressing the needs of the employer. Those who are underskilled have to commit themselves to getting the training and education they need to be competitive.”
It can be tough to keep a healthy perspective when someone feels overwhelmed fighting the odds. Remind yourself you are doing everything you can, says Dr. Robert Wicks, psychologist at Loyola University in Maryland.
“Don’t waste energy rehashing the past,” he advises. “Only focus on what you did well and be proud of yourself. Focus on how you can be faithful to your situation in the best way possible. Success is nice, but in many cases you have no control over it.”
In January, Baird got an educational grant and enrolled part-time in community college, where she studies computer programming. “My goal is to get a job in that field, but even if can’t find one, I figure with a college degree I will have the knowledge to be more competitive,” she says. “Right now all I have is experience in factory work and with the Postal Service, which is scaling back.”