Sunday, January 11, 2009

There's 7.2 and then there are the Real Numbers

The U.S. Department of Labor reports that 7.2% of all Americans who want to work are unemployed. That's the highest unemployment rate in 16 years, not surprising after employers shed a shocking 524,000 jobs in December, capping a yearly loss of 2.6 million as the deepening recession claims more victims.

I was thinking about the numbers this afternoon when, like most Sunday afternoons, I took the SUV to be washed. For 50 pesos in San Miguel de Allende, less than $4 U.S. dollars, Juan and his workers will wash it by hand, top to bottom, inside and out. Today I waited for my car and talked to a couple of Juan's helpers as they worked. Tiring of my street-level Spanish, one of the workers drying my car spoke to me in English. Not just English, but the real thing -- no accent.

"Where did you learn your English?" I asked.

"In Tampa, Florida," he replied. "I lived there from the time I was three until last year -- 23 years. Then I returned here," he said gesturing to the vehicle and then the city below. "Not exactly my choice of work, but I take what I can get."

I nodded but said nothing.

"I have a high school diploma," he offered proudly, "and a year of college. But there's no work up there."

"Nothing?" I asked.

"Oh, I might be able to get a job in a car wash," he laughed sardonically, "but here I can live on a car washer's pay. There, no way," he lamented.

"So, why San Miguel?"

"Juan is a relative," he replied. "He hired me. He knows I have a child back in Tampa I need to support. Kind of ironic, isn't it? We used to cross into the United States to get work so we could support our families here. Now I come to Mexico to support my child there."

He shook is head and went back to work. In a few minutes he walked over and said, "Your car is ready." And then he came closer and whispered. "I want you to know something," he said. "If you have work -- any work -- any work at all -- I need work. I really need work."

As I drove home, I stopped thinking about the numbers and thought of the people I know back home who are out of work -- other lawyers, HR professionals, and first line managers to CEO's. But it dawned on me that I know more people like Carlos -- people qualified to do more than they have an opportunity to do, good people, hard working people, people who are not technically "unemployed," and so do not show up in any of the government's numbers, but who suffer nonetheless.

It is hard to know the answer but I do know the question, "What went wrong with the world's largest economy where millions today cannot find a job and many millions more waste their talents and education?"


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well jim I will tell you what went wrong. Look up the Chicago school of Economics, and it's patriarch Milton Friedman. Read some of his greatest hits and then if it still isn't clear there is no hope for you. His policies killed millions in Latin America and brought us the likes of Pol Pot, Pinochet, and several other facist dictators. It also gave us ronald Regan and his ilk. Look into it and call me.

6:40 PM  

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