Marginal workers, underemployed push economic fringe to limit

unemployedWhile the steady rise of the nation’s unemployment rate has become shorthand for the recession’s impact, many economists say the grim figures — 8.9 percent in April — don’t tell the whole story of Americans’ financial distress.

The plight of the jobless tends to dominate social policy conversations and media coverage but a less-exposed but equally vulnerable population is the millions of underemployed. This diffuse, often poorly tracked cross-section of citizens who bear the individual and collective challenges living on the economic fringes often go overlooked by policy makers and elected leaders.

“The number of people under economic stress is much bigger than the official unemployment rate,” said Chad Stone, chief economist at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Who are these people? The Bureau of Labor Statistics takes a stab at quantifying these people to create a more comprehensive picture of who’s not working and why not. The Bureau identifies categories of Americans it labels as “marginal,” meaning that they are unemployed and have looked for a job in the past, but not recently, and “employed part time for economic reasons,” referring to workers who would take full-time schedules if they could. Once these groups are added to the base unemployment rate, the number climbs all the way up to 15.8 percent in April, the highest number since the BLS began tracking these sub-groups in 1994.

Yet there are some who say even these numbers don’t tell the whole story. Progressive think tanks talk about “skill underemployment.” “It’s the computer engineer who lost [his] job and is now working at 7-11,” said Heidi Shierholz, an economist with the Economic Policy Institute. “They show up as employed, not as a bad labor market outcome,” she said. In reality, though, these workers, are both earning and contributing far less than their potential — one definition of underemployment. The labor bureau’s data-collection also doesn’t take into account the millions of Americans who have had their hours or wages cut in recent months.

There’s no single agency that tracks the underemployed, so researchers have to cobble together data from all corners of the economy to come up with an estimate on disenfranchised workers. According to Philip Harvey, a professor of law and economics at Rutgers School of Law, the United States is short by nearly 23 million jobs, a far greater number than the 13.7 million of officially unemployed workers.

Gertrude Goldberg, chair of the National Jobs for All Coalition, says that low-balling the number of distressed workers leads to an inadequate response. “By under-defining it you reduce the notion of a mass of people at risk in terms of tomorrow,” she said. And while they may disagree on precisely how to count underemployed Americans, nearly all agree that their growing numbers could lead to problems both in the short term as well as in the future.

“When you have productive people that can’t get the hours they need, that represents a huge contraction for the economy,” said Shierholz. Lower paychecks in the case of forced part-time employment means less money going into federal, state and city tax coffers, at a time when many local governments can ill afford a shortfall.

Social Security also takes a hit, according to Shierholz. “To the extent that people paying into Social Security are paying a percentage of their income, as people are seeing their hours reduced, that reduces their weekly paychecks, so that will reduce the amount they pay into Social Security.” In reference to recent concerns about the longevity of the Social Security trust fund, she said, “it is absolutely a contributor to this.”

As bad as this sounds, the damage to individuals’ own retirement accounts is even greater. “One of the biggest factors for having larger 401(k) balances is continuous participation in a plan,” said Craig Copeland, senior research associate for the Employee Benefit Research Institute. Since 401(k) contributions grow from stock market gains, workers who are laid off even briefly miss out on the chance to invest while the stock market is low. Companies are allowed to impose a one-year waiting period on new hires’ participation in retirement plans, so the unemployed who return to the workforce face a “time out” period that could cost them dearly in the long run.

The workers classified as involuntarily part-time by the Bureau of Labor Statistics face even greater hurdles. According to EBRI research, in 2007, only 18 percent of male and 26 percent of female part-time workers participate in employer-offered retirement benefit plans. The reason for this is twofold, said EBRI’s Copeland. These employees are less likely to have the extra income to invest in a retirement plan. In addition, most companies don’t even offer retirement benefits for those who work fewer than 20 hours a week.

Underemployment also means that a worker’s Social Security benefits could be reduced when he or she collects them in retirement. This combination of reductions in private and public income streams means that when these potentially millions of underemployed Americans exit the workforce, the government could be facing a crisis of underfunded retirees.

Implications for health insurance are also troubling. Elise Gould, health economist at the Economic Policy Institute, says that in 2007, the most recent year for which statistics are available, only 55 percent of part-time employees had employer-sponsored health insurance, as compared to 74 percent of their full-time counterparts. It’s likely that these numbers have dropped further since then, she added. “There’s been a downward trend in these since 2000, and I would expect these to have only gotten worse.”

This health care gap has serious consequences, according to David Dooley, chair of the department of psychology and social behavior at the University of California, Irvine. Dooley studied the mental-health effects of underemployment as compared with unemployment. Rates of depression, alcohol abuse and other markers were similar for both groups. “The general patterns is that we get the expected adverse effects of complete job loss with inadequate employment,” he said.

However, while programs such as Medicaid and COBRA exist to help the unemployed, there are no comparable health care alternatives for underemployed workers. “If people show signs of depression or increased drinking, they’re not going to have the resources for early intervention,” said Dooley. “If they’re in a downward spiral there’s not going to be anyone to slow it down.”

Despite these troubling clues, though, people like Goldberg say the government hasn’t been aggressive or inclusive enough in designing stimulus programs that help out the underemployed as well as the unemployed. Although the federal government has extended unemployment benefits and given states money to boost the benefits by a nominal amount, none of this helps the employee forced to work a four-day week or take a part-time job to replace lost full-time employment.

Shierholz says not to count on the promised job creation benefits of the stimulus either. “By the time the stimulus package was implemented it was already behind,” she said. “It was only expected to create between three and five million jobs. By the time it got off the ground we were seven million jobs in the hole.” She and others warn that if the underemployed are allowed to slip through the cracks, economic recovery will be all the more elusive.

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Martha C. White

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