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Permanent Army of 1 Million : Discouraged Jobless Face World on Threads of Hope

July 21, 1986|LEE MAY | Times Staff Writer

YORK, Pa. — Since he lost his assembly line job 2 1/2 years ago, Gerard Dumais has filled out 100 job applications. For his trouble, he got one interview--and no job. Now, Dumais said: "I know before I go looking I won't get the job, because I know what I've been through."

Dumais is a "discouraged worker," part of what many economists fear is a permanent army of at least a million people who have given up looking for work. They are not counted among the officially unemployed, and they retain only the loosest connections to the job market. They hang by threads of hope until hope disappears, and then they drop out of sight.

The resulting misery is profound for the individuals themselves and spreads through whole communities. In some areas around the country, labor groups, social agencies and city and state governments have become so concerned that they are devoting scarce resources to programs designed to combat the desperation that many discouraged workers say they feel.

"I don't think I could kill myself," said Verna Toomey, a former convenience store manager here who has not been able to find a steady job since 1982. "But it's entered my mind."

In June, according to the U.S. Labor Department, 109.7 million Americans held jobs and 8.4 million were looking for work but could not find it. In addition to those traditional unemployed, there were 1.1 million officially discouraged workers--so called because they had not bothered to look for work for the last four weeks.

About 70% of the discouraged workers were women and 26% were black. Beyond those disproportionately represented groups, certain kinds of individuals are particularly likely to slip from unemployed to discouraged:

--Workers of middle age or older who have lost long-held jobs and, because of their age, represent poor investments to employers who might retrain them. James Markle Sr., a York businessman who is an advocate for the unemployed, said many industries are trying to "unload the older workers and get younger people to work for less."

--Young people who have never worked and have so few skills that they may never hold steady jobs. Jack Ward, director of an AFL-CIO jobs program in Kenosha, Wis., where thousands of American Motors Corp. workers have lost their jobs, called illiteracy "a hidden problem" among many of the discouraged. "When you start talking about filling out applications," he said, "they shy away."

--Injured workers who are frozen out of the job market because some employers regard them as bad risks. Toomey, for example, said she was fired unfairly from her job after she hurt her back lifting a milk crate and sued for her medical expenses.

Lack Self-Confidence

Each kind of discouraged worker needs different kind of help. But more than merely learning skills that would make them employable, discouraged workers of all stripes must overcome the conviction, which grows each time they are turned down for a job, that they cannot be productive human beings.

"You go into a place expecting not to get hired," Toomey said. "You start thinking that you're not human anymore."

Carolyn Young, Catholic Charities' coordinator of services to York's unemployed, said repeated failures to find work become "an ego or pride issue. We try to teach them that it's okay to hurt."

The numbers of discouraged workers predictably follow unemployment trends. "People come out of the woodwork when the jobs are there," said Michael Podgursky, assistant professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts.

As unemployment remains at about 7%, some advocates for the unemployed worry that the nation already views that figure--and its accompanying 1.1 million discouraged workers--as acceptable.

Here in Pennsylvania Dutch country, the fear is palpable. This town of 44,000, which replaced Philadelphia as the nation's capital for nine months in the 1770s, now serves as a painful reminder of what has happened to many American industries--and the people who work in them.

Loss of Jobs Found

The Manufacturers' Assn. of York found, in a survey, that employment with the area's 24 largest manufacturers--including the "Big Four" of Caterpillar, Harley-Davidson, Borg-Warner and Allis-Chalmers--dropped from 26,800 to 21,200 in the first half of the 1980s. Now, said Walter Reamer, executive director of the association, there is a "leveling off" of employment among heavy industry. "But that isn't very reassuring for those people who happen to be on the outside looking in," he said.

Some economists quibble with the government's definition of a job search. "There's no objective way of defining it," said Sar Levitan, director of the Center for Social Policy Studies at George Washington University. "What is it? Having a beer with a friend and mentioning it?"

What is clear is that many people who say they want jobs actually stop looking at times--for days or weeks or even years--because they believe that no matter how hard they search, they will not be able to find work.

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