The Harsh Reality of the US Job Market: “Load Sixteen Tons and What Do You Get?”
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The Harsh Reality of the US Job Market: “Load Sixteen Tons and What Do You Get?”


A friend writes to me from West Virginia, not exactly one of the most expensive and difficult places to live in the United States.

"You just have to see for yourself. You already know about the situation. Degrees are worthless, what use to be good jobs are no longer. Twenty years ago a 40-hour a week factory job was good money. It only is now if you don't have student loans and live with your parents. The minimum-wage is not enough to survive on, especially if you are a single person nowadays."

I plan to return to Wild Wonderful West Virginia to visit my grandchildren in July. I have been living the last 25-years in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, living on less than 1,000 dollars (and compared to the US), this is an upper-middle-class existence; I have been living high-on-the-hog.

You will find countless articles on why things are “not-so-rosy,” and are in “rude health,” this is especially true for blacks, minorities and younger Americans. The rate for white unemployment is just under 4%, and the rate for African Americans is almost twice that (7.3%). Teens are the hardest hit with a jobless rate of 15.9%.

But numbers can be deceiving, and even with low unemployment rates, which officially stand at 3.8% according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But anyone who has ever drawn an unemployment check knows only too well that to be counted as part of the labor force, or among the unemployed, you must be working or actively looking for a job. Otherwise, you are just outside of the statistics.

Keep that in mind and it soon becomes apparent that many of the jobs that have been generated in the new economy are at, or just above, minimum wage; they are not permanent and often merely seasonal. To add injury upon insult, they provide no benefits or else extremely limited ones, and they provide little or no opportunity for career advancement/ or self-satisfaction. They are basically dead-end-jobs.

These are often the jobs occupied by the working poor. According to UC Davis, the “working poor” are people who spend 27 weeks or more a year in the labor force, either working or looking for work, but whose incomes fall below the official poverty line.”

To lose a job in such a market will put you in the street. But first, you will have already robbed Peter to pay Paul, and maxed out your credit cards. You may have even had to ask friends and family for help. No wonder you see so many homeless when you visit large cities. Even you can land a reasonable job after being down on your luck; it is not so easy getting back on your feet, however; your credit has been ruined, and it's now hard to even rent a flat with a month’s down payment or to pass a background credit check.

Golden Handcuffs

Having a job, however, can be as bad as not having one; my friend was making 5,000 dollars a month after taxes but putting in 10 and 12 hours days, with forced overtime, 6 and seven days a week.

No life, as they say in Russian, “from bed to factory and back again.”

 No social life, no close family relations, and hopeless. But he justified it by saying that “he was making more than a school teacher.” by working in a frozen chicken distribution center, driving a forklift in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Finally, he had enough, couldn’t handle it more; the promised let up in the schedule never came. When he saw he was in for more of the same with the new schedule, after about six months on the job, he quit.

But then after a break, it all started again, temp jobs and then a full-time job after nearly a year of searching but at less than half of what he was making before. My friend, after two weeks in his new job, just wrote to me as this article was going to press, “I have been moved to problem solver. Not much in physical demands, I just push a computer cart around.”

His situation is better than many his age: 31. The choices are bleak, especially for the working poor and those with degrees that they cannot use, without the right kind of education or professional (vocational skills) to improve their lot. It too is about connections, and not what you know but who you know.It is no wonder then that almost a third of American families are low-income, with racial and ethnic minorities far more likely to be poor.  Despite activists advising more education, training,  and health and child care to close the gap, it is not easy to access education when you have a family to feed and also have to service consumer and student debt.

It becomes a new form of institutional of wage slavery, as an article in Vanity Fair expressed so well, Corporate America Worried that educating wage slaves may hurt morale, as “Nobody wants to know they’re only earning 1/300th of their boss’s salary.”

It also becomes a matter of self-esteem, you worked all your life, did the right thing, bought into the American Dream,  kept your nose clean and didn’t fuck up! But what do you have to show for it?

It boils down to the old Tennessee Ernie Ford Song, “Load Sixteen Tons, What Do You Get, Another Day Older and Deeper in Debt” – Saint Peter don’t you call me as I can’t go, as I owe my soul to the company store.”

Author: Jeffrey Silverman