ten best!: Indicators of economic distress

by Jordan Green

Our lives have more perspective

There’s nothing good about an economic downturn, particularly for those of who have lost jobs or homes, but there are some significant shifts taking place in lives that are worth taking note of. The silver lining, if there is one, is that the downturn has caused people to readjust their priorities. Those of us who have a place to go during the day, something to do — paid or volunteer — and some kind of personal income to keep a roof over our heads and feed ourselves, recognize that we are truly blessed. If we have families, significant others in our lives, friends, we’re even more so.

Increased demand on library services

Steve Sumerford, assistant director of the Greensboro Public Library, reports that library usage has markedly increased, both by those who are conducting job searches and those who have disconnected their internet service at home to save money, and are using the library’s computers instead.

Rising unemployment

The simple fact is that jobs are vanishing. New numbers released by the NC Employment Security Commission on April 1 recorded 11 percent unemployment in Guilford County in the month of February — and of course that doesn’t count the people who have given up on finding jobs — and 10 percent in Forsyth County. Unemployment has doubled in both counties since February 2008, with the most dramatic rises taking place between December and January. Since the recession began in December 2007, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 5.1 million — equivalent to the population of Arizona — non-farm jobs have vanished in the United States.

Assisted living facilities fear unionization

Smaller operators of assisted living facilities and retirement homes in Guilford County represented by the NC Assisted Living Association are anxiously monitoring the Employee Free Choice Act, introduced last month by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D- Mass) in the Senate and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) in the House. The bill would amend the National Labor Relations Act by allowing unions to be automatically certified as representing a workplace if 51 percent of employees sign statements indicating they wish

to be represented, short circuiting the cumbersome election process currently in place. Assisted living facility operators in Guilford County, where nursing aides earn an average of $11.17 per hour, fear that passage of the act would result higher labor costs, putting smaller outfits at a disadvantage against their larger competitors. Reps. Mel Watt and Brad Miller, who respectively represent the 12th and 13th Congressional Districts of North Carolina, have signed on as cosponsors to the House bill, but Sen. Kay Hagan, who pledged support for so-called union card-check legislation during her election campaign last year, has not signed on in support of the Senate bill.

G-20 summit

World leaders recently met in Europe, not to discuss an optional war against a third-world dictator flouting international inspections for weapons of mass destruction, but rather to try to figure out a way to fix the global economy.

Strain on teenagers

The cruel irony of an economic downturn is that it drives up needs precisely at the time when the marketplace and government are least able to meet them. Just at the time when teenagers are feeling the need to contribute more to their families’ finances they’re facing increased layoffs, a new poll by Junior Achievement and the Allstate Foundation finds. The survey found that 14 percent of American teenagers ages 15-17 report the need to contribute to their family’s budget, and more than half are choosing activities that cost less money. At the same time, 18 percent of the 15-17-year-old demographic told pollsters they lost a job due to the economy, and three in 10 teenagers said the economy was causing them anxiety.

Mass violence

Some people snap when they lose a job, or experience some other traumatic life-changing event. New York Times reporter Katharine Q. Seelye wrote that Rep. Maurice Hinchey said that a gunman now identified as Jiverly Wong who killed 13 people and took his own life at an immigration center in Binghamton, NY had recently been let go from a job at IBM in nearby Johnson City. But mass killers often turn out to have longstanding financial and personal problems. Francis X. Gilpin reported in the Fayetteville Observer on March 31 that Robert Stewart, who is accused of going on a shooting rampage last month at the nursing home where his wife worked in Carthage, NC, “has been in an out of court — ending marriages, frustrating creditors and only occasionally defending his paint jobs against customer complaints.” And Michael McLendon, who killed 10 people in Alabama last month, “had struggled to keep a job and left behind a list of employers and co-workers he believed had wronged him,” according to a March 12 MSNBC report.

Homelessness on the rise

Michele Forrest, a Greensboro homeless advocate, told volunteers in an April 1 e- mail message that they should expect to see more homeless people on the streets, with temporary winter emergency shelters winding down. “The number of unsheltered homeless people has increased dramatically from last year,” she wrote, citing a statement to her from Greensboro Urban Ministry executive director Mike Aiken that the shelter is seeing a 30-40-percent increase in people seeking shelter beds. Forrest added that Aiken “emphasized to me that these are new homeless people, not chronic folks rotating through the shelter.”

Public sector layoffs

At the very time people need government more, government is forced to contract. On March 26, Finance Director Sharon Ozment announced that Guilford County Schools will be trimming $22 million for its budget. Spokeswoman Laurie Hogan confirmed on Monday that the district’s current estimate is that it will cut 90 positions in anticipation of the state budget and the Guilford County Commission’s request for no spending increases. Meanwhile, the Charlotte Observer reports that Charlotte- Mecklenburg Schools plans to cut as many as 534 jobs in an effort to save $86 million, including math and science coordinators and English as a Second Language assistants.

Growth industry in indicators

Ira Glass, host of National Public Radio’s “This American Life,” notes that a cottage industry of sorts has sprung up, with journalists gathering indicators of the economic downturn. Among them of higher rates of dental visits because people respond to stress by grinding their teeth, lower rates of shark attack because people spend less time on vacation, and criminals robbing banks and then promptly exchanging cash for money orders to pay rent.