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Need to Know: Economy

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While Washington focuses on the budget deficit, unemployed American Jason Muhlhauser struggles to get by.

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(Courtesy of Jason Muhlhauser)

Jason Muhlhauser lost his job 17 months ago. Washington has all but forgotten about him. Congress is distracted by budget wrangling. The news media has drifted from unemployment to the federal budget deficit, a National Journal analysis found last week. President Obama and Republican leaders can’t agree on how to boost jobs, so they’re doing precious little.

 

Today in America, 13.7 million women and men are looking for work. Nearly 10 million others want to be working more hours than they are or are too discouraged to even look for a job. Nearly 6 million people—43 percent of those who are unemployed—have been searching for more than 27 weeks. That number includes Muhlhauser, a 37-year-old single father. Before being laid off in December 2009, he worked in the Navistar auto plant in his native Indianapolis. He made “plenty,” he says, to provide for his daughter, Alyssa, who is now 3 years old.

Muhlhauser isn’t giving up. But a new study this month by the Bureau of Labor Statistics reinforces what economists have been saying for years: The longer a person is out of work, the more likely he or she is to drop out of the workforce entirely.

 

This week, Muhlhauser shared his job-search story with a reporter. Here it is, as told to NJ:

In high school, I was told to go do something you like to do, and I really liked cars. After high school, I went to Ivy Tech [Community College] and got an associate’s degree in automotive. I was a mechanic at a few dealerships on the southeast side of Indy. My dad worked on the engine side of the Navistar plant. They had lottery drawings for family members. I won the drawing. I started there in September 1997.

It was a union job. I made $21 an hour. I had plenty to provide for my daughter. I was in the melt department, pouring the blocks and heads for the Ford Power Stroke diesel engine. The work was hard, and it was hot, but the surroundings, as far as the people I worked with, it was like family. I had a lot of pride in what
I did. I bought a Ford Power Stroke truck, a black F-250. I still have it. It’s been paid off for five years.

 

In ’08, Navistar lost its contract with Ford for diesel motors. That was our bread and butter. At that point, we started to realize it was coming to an end. I was laid off in December 2009. I started to collect unemployment. I’m still on extended benefits.

The union worked hard to set up training programs for us. I took some computer classes. I started in an advanced manufacturing program in May 2010. I’ll be done in August. I’ll be trained to operate an advanced [computer numerical control] machine. I might be able to find a job running one for $6 or $7 less per hour than I made at Navistar. The final part of the training program is through Ivy Tech. It’s a little bit of a joke. Sometimes we can’t get instructors; we can’t get rooms. We’re kind of treated like red-headed stepchildren.

Since I lost my job, life has been very stressful. It’s been very hard. I’m not just worried about myself, I’m worried for my daughter. I lost my insurance, so my daughter and I haven’t had insurance. She’s a pretty healthy little girl, thank God. She loves dolls and being outside with her dad. Her mom is working a few hours a week, making minimum wage.

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I’m not just worried about myself, I’m worried for my daughter. I lost my insurance, so my daughter and I haven’t had insurance. She’s a pretty healthy little girl, thank God.

My daughter has a birthday coming up. I’d like to be able to buy her a big old swing set. I can’t do that. I want to just let her be a kid and have fun, you know? She likes to go to Chuck E. Cheese’s, but by the time you’re done there, you’ve spent an arm and a leg, so I can’t do that.

I was supposed to get recalled [to Navistar] next week, but I got a call saying the truck market took a dump, so now it may not be until next year—if then. I might quit school and take a job now, with Alyssa’s mom’s dad. He does sewer readings. It pays probably $10 an hour, no health insurance.

It’s really scary because my unemployment benefits are going to be up in August, so I have to do something. That’s why I may have to take this job. It pays nothing, but I might have to do it.

I used to work 60 hours a week and be fine. Now, I’m just worn out, mentally drained, all the time. I’m sure it’s depression.

I go to church. That helps.

I always think: It could be a whole lot worse. I’m lucky to have what I have.

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This article appears in the May 28, 2011 edition of National Journal Magazine.

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