A Voice for the Unemployed

Yahoo!'s haunting look at the lives of the long-term jobless

Had your fill of reading about who stormed out on whom, and who called whom “childish,” in the umpteenth round of D.C.’s debt ceiling talks? For a different look at the economic picture, head over to Yahoo!’s “The Lookout” blog, where former CJR staffer Zach Roth has a haunting post drawing on about 6,000 personal accounts from readers who have been out of work for six months or more.

Even after nearly three years of unrelentingly dismal macroeconomic news, the comments—in Roth’s post, and on a separate Tumblr page that features fuller versions of 50 reader replies—are heart-rending. In some cases, the punch comes from the sense of steadily lowered expectations: one correspondent writes about how his family gave up its car, along with “some of the other luxuries.”

In others, an almost Depression-era sense of bleakness, and resourcefulness, comes through. “My family is eating stir-fried dandelions out of yards to keep from starving,” writes one reader. Another declares, “I am Native so I have been able to deal with the loss of my home, etc and am living in an army tent in the woods and getting food from the woods and gardening.”

And still other comments capture the arbitrariness of a job market in which applicants vastly outnumber job openings:

“I applied at one place that literally handed out raffle tickets and the winning 100 tickets were the only ones that got to apply,” wrote M.O. “Of course my number wasn’t one of them.”

While each story is different, read alongside each other, they offer a collage-style view of the way the economic crisis has rippled through workers’ lives. The construction bust, the collapse of aggregate demand, subtle and not-so-subtle discrimination against older workers and the long-term unemployed, the terrible prospects for recent graduates, the struggles of underwater homeowners, the specific burdens on people with health problems or military families, the connection between unemployment and suicide—if you’ve read about an issue facing the economy and the labor market over the last few years, it’s represented here.

Beyond the decision to present this material in this format—see my colleague Alysia Santo for more on that—what’s striking here is the volume of responses Yahoo! got after asking readers for their stories. According to Roth’s post, the outlet hired extra staff to help sort through the emails that came flooding in.

And Yahoo!’s is not the only unemployment-related feature that has generated a lot of reader response recently. After her article on how the unemployed “became invisible” appeared last weekend in The New York Times, Catherine Rampell has been posting and responding to emails from readers at the NYT’s “Economix” blog this week. (The Times, in its infiniteTimes-iness, did not open comments on the original story.) This email from an out-of-work reader, posted by Rampell Wednesday, suggested how deep the desire to be seen—by journalists, by policy-makers, by anyone in a position of power—is:

I don’t want to be one of fourteen-plus million anymore. I want to be thought of by columnists and law makers as me. And I believe that there are fourteen-plus million more just like me. Because of that, we - you - need to think about unemployment one person at a time. Me, Mike, Bruce, Pam, Audrey, Arlene, Bob, and the others. And then I need a job and so do they.

Right now, of course, much more media attention is being paid to who stormed out on whom, and who called whom “childish,” than on telling that reader’s story. And that’s not wrong, exactly. If the negotiations in Washington fall apart and the debt ceiling isn’t raised, bad things will happen. If it is raised and the federal government simultaneously embarks on a near-term austerity program, bad things will probably happen then, too. In either case, there’s a good chance those ranks of fourteen-plus million will grow.

But against a broader media climate in which the deficit has come to dominate economic and political coverage and the unemployed have been largely forgotten, Roth and Rampell have made an important contribution by putting them back on the agenda. In the process, they’ve shown the demand that exists to have these stories told. May the rest of the press take notice.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.