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National unemployment touches rich and poor alike

Source: Scripps Howard News Service
Date: November 13, 2003

Fear of unemployment and other economic worries haunt Americans at a level well above the current official federal statistic that pegs joblessness at just 6 percent of the workforce.

More than a third of adults say at least one person in their immediate family has "lost a job in the last three years," according to a national survey of 1,054 people conducted by Scripps Howard News Service and Ohio University.

Nearly two-thirds said a "friend or acquaintance" has lost a job since the economy began its downturn in early 2001. About half report a member of their immediate family is currently looking for a job or soon will be.

"If you get behind the official unemployment numbers, you see a rather dramatic story. This recession has caused great tumult in the jobs market," said former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich after reviewing the survey results.

"Large numbers of Americans are working part time who would rather be working full time. Many people have left the job market altogether because they are too discouraged to look for work, and so don't show up at all in unemployment statistics," Reich said.

The survey findings come as federal officials are celebrating signs of economic upturn. The Bureau of Labor Statistics last week reported 126,000 jobs were created in October and a total of 160,000 were created in September and August, reversing a six-month trend of substantial employment losses.

The White House has tread a delicate political tightrope lately, praising the strongest quarterly growth in almost 20 years while taking care not to declare victory over the faltering economy.

"I will stay focused on our economy until the American people are able to put food on the table and take care of their family responsibilities by finding a job," President Bush said on Nov. 10. "Too many of our fellow Americans aren't working."

The survey found that economic concerns stretch across all social and political classes, touching well-educated and affluent households nearly as much as disadvantaged homes.

A quarter of all people in the poll cited "improving the American economy" as the nation's most important issue, surpassing concerns for the war on terrorism, education, health care, protecting Social Security or peace in the Middle East.

The survey found that 36 percent said a member of their immediate family has lost a job in the last three years, 62 percent said they know someone who has lost a job and 46 percent said a member of their immediate family "is looking for work or likely to be looking for work soon.

Members of racial or ethnic minorities and people from economically disadvantaged households are somewhat more likely to have seen unemployment strike their families or friends. But nearly a third of people who hold advanced college degrees or who live in households earning more than $100,000 a year said someone in their immediate family has lost a job.

Americans perceived that joblessness was impacting their lives even though the economy has grown steadily since November 2001.

"This period of expansion seems different," said employment expert John Challenger. "We are in a period not of jobless recovery, but of jobless expansion. The economy has acted like a furnace with a pilot light that will not stay lit. It heats up temporarily, but soon cools off."

For seven years, Scripps Howard and Ohio University have asked American adults how often they fear they could lose their jobs. During most of the 1990s, only a quarter or less of the polls found that Americans "frequently" or "sometimes" think that they personally could become unemployed.

But such fears rose in recent years, with nearly 37 percent reporting at the beginning of the year that they at least sometimes worry they could lose their jobs. The latest poll found 32 percent have this level of unemployment concern.

"We could have expected this. And I believe the baseline of these fears will be higher this time than it was since the last economic recovery," said Reich. "Even when the economy recovers, the number of Americans expressing fears of joblessness will have permanently increased."

The survey was conducted at the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University. Residents of the United States were interviewed by telephone from Oct. 20 through Nov. 4 in a study funded by a grant from the Scripps Foundation.

The overall poll has a 4 percentage point margin of error, although the margin increases when examining attitudes among smaller groups within the survey.

Further details of the poll and the operations of the Scripps Survey Research Center can be found at www.newspolls.org.