UserFriendly flagged a must-read story at Bloomberg, This Is the New Face of American Unemployment. It seeks to give a better picture of long-term un and underemployment through five profiles, each chosen to illustrate a widely-reported impediment: low mobility, criminal records, disability, labor shortage, and “mature workers”.
However, when you read the stories carefully, they actually depict two overarching problems: discrimination and the far-ranging impact of the opioid epidemic.
And separately, the story has buried in it a factoid that indicts the performance of our ruling classes: “Nearly half of U.S. children now have at least one parent with a criminal record.”
The most gripping story is the first, that of Tyler Moore of Mingo, West Virginia, who is meant to stand as the poster child of “low mobility”. But the reason it would be better if he could get out of Mingo is that the town and area are collapsing due to the closure of coal mines, which had been the anchors of the economy.
And it isn’t that Moore is not willing to go, even though he would prefer to remain near his aging father. It’s that the only thing that has kept him alive is family and community safety nets.
Even though the story doesn’t dwell on it, it is not hard to discern that Mingo is awash in drugs and despair. From Bloomberg:
The 23-year-old had run out of options. He’d applied for dozens of jobs within an hour and a half of his hometown of Lovely, once a coal-mining stronghold. Instead of opportunities, he had found waiting lists.
“Minimum-wage jobs, fast-food restaurants, Wal-Mart, anything like that, a lot of them has already been took,” he says in an Appalachian drawl, explaining that the backlog just to interview was as long as a year. “There are no jobs.”..
His problems started in earnest in 2014. He had been living on his own for several years, having moved out at 18 after dropping out of high school, obtaining his GED, and going to work in security at a coal company. Moore is gay in an intensely conservative region, and he said he left school because of bullying.
Moore lost his job in late 2013 after smoking marijuana and failing a drug test. Though he found temporary work as a remote customer service representative, he lost that one when his mother died of a drug overdose in 2014 and he had to plan her funeral.
Deeply depressed and unemployed, he moved into an old Airstream camper propped on cinder blocks behind his father’s house, at the entrance to the litter-strewn trailer park that the older man owns in the misty hills of Lovely. There, surrounded by long-unemployed neighbors and rampant drug use, Moore began to abuse his medical prescriptions. “I guess I used it as my crutch, in a way,” he says…
Moore began getting in fights while drugged and was arrested twice. When he landed in jail for several months, he realized things needed to change. He graduated from a rehabilitation program in September, one year, one month, and 15 days after that last altercation. Since then, he’s deepened his friendship with Sister Therese Carew, a Catholic nun who ministers to the region, and dedicated his time to job seeking…
To employers outside the area, the fact that Moore is neatly groomed, soft-spoken, and polite can’t mask his history. What’s more, he’s the first to admit that the math skills he learned in the local public schools—where only eight in 10 students graduate—aren’t up to par, and his speaking patterns are colored by regional grammar.
“Colored by regional grammar” is a polite way of saying, “is indelibly from the wrong side of the tracks and therefore won’t even be considered for most customer-facing jobs.” Class was also key to his decline. How many middle and upper middle class people regularly smoke marijuana, use cocaine, and abuse prescription drugs like Adderall or Valium with no career consequences?
As Nobel Prize winner James Heckman has found, a GED isn’t equivalent to a high school diploma. GED holders do worse in terms of lifetime earning that high school graduates. Heckman posits that the socialization of going to class makes a difference in being able to hold jobs.
The second profile, of David Wolf, is another case of past drug use (Oxycontin, Percocet, and Vicodin, which he started taking after a car accident) making it well-nigh impossible to find work:
In 2012, Wolf was convicted of faking a name and Social Security number to get prescription painkillers. Now the 40-year-old father of three and former Marine, who has an associate’s degree from St. Petersburg College, has struggled to find employment. He’s received so many retracted offers that he’s lost count.
“I get more interviews that I can shake my stick at, but again, it always comes back around to the denominator of being a felon,” Wolf says from his small, one-level ranch house in a Tampa, Fla., suburb, where religious imagery and family photos decorate his walls. “For many, many years, I pretty much got whatever job I wanted. I was able to do anything I felt like doing. It’s really been a humbling experience.”…
“They wouldn’t even hire me to sell Christmas trees at a Home Depot through an employment agency,” he says. “A lot of times the hiring managers feel like they have their hands tied, due to company policy. It’s something that really needs to change. Not only can I not get a job, but I can’t get a job with a living wage for my family. I have three children. I have a wife. I’m not a bad guy.”
The employer who can’t find enough workers says it’s more a problem of drug use than skills:
At a 200-foot-long steel-rolling machine in Scottdale, Pa., two workers in yellow hard hats monitor screens filled with flashing numbers as they refine rough wire into pencil-thick rod calibrated to a thousandth of a millimeter. This work takes years of training, and MLP Steel Chief Executive Officer Jeff Pfeifer struggles to find employees to fill the job.
Years ago, he spoke on local radio news about the shortage of skilled workers, bringing a line of 100 job seekers to his gravel parking lot.
“Two-thirds of people who came in to interview failed the drug test,” Pfeifer says, shaking his head. The company had to pay to test the applicants, so “it got to be a very expensive radio show.”…
“We’re not out there with shovels and coal anymore,” Pfeifer says. “We’ll just about hire anybody that we can get our hands on if the person comes in drug-free and they show up for work on time.”
The complicated jobs, which pay $12 to $20 an hour, plus health care and benefits, require sober workers. Sitting in his office behind a wide wooden desk strewn with manila folders and steel samples, Pfeifer explains that his company has a zero tolerance policy: If you’re using drugs, you’re out.
Readers who know the area please pipe up and tell me whether the wages are competitive; the fact that it includes health care, that MLP is willing to train, and has lots of applicants show up says it might be. But I’d be curious to know if he’s still offering too little for what he expects (as in if the de facto requirements are harder than just being clean and reliable).
The other two examples, also worth reading in full, are of an artist with cerebral palsy and a former senior tech worker over 55, neither of whom have been able to find work. As one reader pointed out over the weekend, while sexual and ethnic discrimination are policed to a fair degree, age discrimination is treated as perfectly acceptable.
The bigger point is that neoliberalism treats individuals as able to make their own way, when people are products of their families and communities. And we have entire sections of the country being laid waste by the combination of economic distress, poor education, weak social safety nets, and despair. And regulatory neglect made a bad situation vastly worse. This damage greatly compounded by Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, targeting less well educated doctors in areas with a lot of manual workers who would suffer from accidents and long-term orthopedic pain. On top of that, Purdue sold what was an alleged longer-term formulation, and when patients would report pain when the dose ran out after 8 hours, the MDs would be told to increase the dosage. From the Los Angeles Times:
The drugmaker Purdue Pharma launched OxyContin two decades ago with a bold marketing claim: One dose relieves pain for 12 hours, more than twice as long as generic medications….
On the strength of that promise, OxyContin became America’s bestselling painkiller, and Purdue reaped $31 billion in revenue.
But OxyContin’s stunning success masked a fundamental problem: The drug wears off hours early in many people, a Los Angeles Times investigation found. OxyContin is a chemical cousin of heroin, and when it doesn’t last, patients can experience excruciating symptoms of withdrawal, including an intense craving for the drug….
The Times investigation, based on thousands of pages of confidential Purdue documents and other records, found that:
• Purdue has known about the problem for decades. Even before OxyContin went on the market, clinical trials showed many patients weren’t getting 12 hours of relief.
• Since the drug’s debut in 1996, the company has been confronted with additional evidence, including complaints from doctors, reports from its own sales reps and independent research.
• The company has held fast to the claim of 12-hour relief, in part to protect its revenue. OxyContin’s market dominance and its high price — up to hundreds of dollars per bottle — hinge on its 12-hour duration. Without that, it offers little advantage over less expensive painkillers.
• When many doctors began prescribing OxyContin at shorter intervals in the late 1990s, Purdue executives mobilized hundreds of sales reps to “refocus” physicians on 12-hour dosing. Anything shorter “needs to be nipped in the bud. NOW!!” one manager wrote to her staff.
• Purdue tells doctors to prescribe stronger doses, not more frequent ones, when patients complain that OxyContin doesn’t last 12 hours. That approach creates risks of its own. Research shows that the more potent the dose of an opioid such as OxyContin, the greater the possibility of overdose and death.
• More than half of long-term OxyContin users are on doses that public health officials consider dangerously high, according to an analysis of nationwide prescription data conducted for The Times…
Experts said that when there are gaps in the effect of a narcotic like OxyContin, patients can suffer body aches, nausea, anxiety and other symptoms of withdrawal. When the agony is relieved by the next dose, it creates a cycle of pain and euphoria that fosters addiction, they said.
OxyContin taken at 12-hour intervals could be “the perfect recipe for addiction,” said Theodore J. Cicero, a neuropharmacologist at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis and a leading researcher on how opioids affect the brain.
This story ran in early May last year. Was there a Congressional hearing? Were any efforts taken to attempt to curb this abuse? Could the failure to act have anything to do with the fact that the Sackler family, which owns Purdue Pharma, has been a very large donor to medical schools and art museums?
The key is that the ravaging of swathes of rural America wasn’t simply the result of economic misfortune. Sustained looting in the form of being targeted by a predatory opioid producer made a bad situation vastly worse. And the coastal elites call the victims deplorables when that label fits much more properly on the Sacklers and the experts that helped them perfect their lucrative strip-mining of working class communities.