Unemployed for 2 years, mechanic still has hope

October 13, 1991|By Michael Pollick

In his gray Davidson College sweat shirt and jeans, Mike Pugh might be mistaken for a construction worker taking a break as he sits on a concrete stoop at the corner of Broadway and Aliceanna Street in Fells Point.

But while he has considerable job skills as a mechanic, Mr. Pugh, 39, has not had a steady job in more than two years.

Occasional jobs as a day laborer have brought some money, but he says, "They pay you $25. By the time you come back, buy dinner, wash your clothes and buy some cigarettes, you're right back where you started."

Mr. Pugh -- and millions of Americans like him -- illustrate the tremendous human cost hidden behind the nation's unemployment statistics.

While the Bush administration downplays the recession, noting that the unemployment rate is well below the rate of previous recessions, millions of jobless or underemployed Americans are going uncounted.

They include so-called "discouraged" workers, who say they'd like to work but have given up looking, and part-timers who want to work full-time. Both groups are excluded from the Bureau of Labor Statistics' "official" jobless rate -- 6.7 percent in September.

The official rate, buoyed by positive assumptions, seriously underestimates the extent of the nation's unemployment problem, some economists say.

The bureau acknowledges the issue -- buried deep in its monthly press release is another jobless rate that may come closer to reality: 10.1 percent.

But some think that even 10.1 percent understates the problem.

"My number is 12.5 percent," said Lawrence Mishel, an economist with the Economic Policy Institute in Washington.

If Mr. Pugh is reflected in the Bureau of Labor Statistics' figures, it is not clear how. Is he a part-timer, and therefore considered part of the employed labor force? Or is he counted as one of the 1.1 million discouraged workers -- a group that, like the 6.4 million part-timers who would rather work full-time, is tallied by the bureau but excluded from the "official" rate?

Or, is he overlooked completely, since he has no permanent address?

Jack Bregger, the bureau's assistant commissioner for current employment analysis, said it would take an interview by an enumerator to determine Mike Pugh's status on any given day.

"If he has done any work at all in a given week, he wouldn't be counted as unemployed," said Mr. Bregger. The homeless, he added, are covered in surveys if they are living in a shelter.

Whatever the case, Mr. Pugh seems to be functioning with no safety net. And he has that in common with many other essentially jobless people.

"Far fewer of the unemployed are getting any benefits now vs. in the mid-'70s or early '80s recessions. That's why there's a big political fight about extended benefits," said Mr. Mishel, who has devised his own rate to show "the portion of the labor force that is under stress." One major difference: Although the government's 10.1 percent rate counts part-timers as half a person each, he includes them all, figuring that they are definitely "under stress."

September's jobless rate fell from the 6.8 percent level of the prior two months and of the second quarter. The Bush administration pointed to the figures as further proof the economy was recovering.

But the number of discouraged workers, which the bureau defines as "people who want to work but are not looking for jobs because they could not find any," increased by 100,000 in the latest three-month period, to 1.1 million. That put the total at its highest level since 1987.

Meanwhile, the ranks of those who are being forced to work part-time because they can't find a full-time job rose by 669,000

in the last three months to reach 6.4 million.

The unrecognized

Angelique Dedmon, who at age 19 has already served a year in the National Guard, falls into this category, which BLS says is often referred to as "the partially unemployed." When she came off active duty in the Guard a month ago, she began looking for a full-time retailing job in Baltimore, her hometown. But she has yet to find a position, even at the lowest wage levels.

Prior to joining the Guard, she made $5.25 an hour as a full-time supermarket cashier, but she is now forced to accept a series of temporary jobs. Her latest job, hanging clothes and unloading trucks for the Limited Express at Towson Town Center, started this week and ends Tuesday. She is paid $4.50 an hour.

"You've got to get what you can," she says.

Accurately counting the nation's unemployed isn't easy. Even officials at the Bureau of Labor Statistics, while defending the official jobless rate as a way of measuring change over time, acknowledge that their 60,000-household sample has its shortcomings.

"The under-counted population may be a bigger problem than the homeless," said Mr. Bregger of the bureau.

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