Image: Donald Schenk
M. Spencer Green  /  AP
Donald Schenk has been out of work in the current downturn, as he was in the early 80s when unemployment last hit 10 percent. He says times are harder now.
updated 11/9/2009 12:05:16 AM ET 2009-11-09T05:05:16

It hurts more to be unemployed now than the last time the jobless rate hit 10 percent.

Americans have more than triple the debt they had in 1982, and less than half the savings. They spend 10 weeks longer off the job. And a bigger share of them have no health insurance, leaving them one medical emergency away from financial ruin.

For these reasons, the unemployed are more vulnerable today to foreclosure and bankruptcy than they were a generation ago.

Donald Schenk knows. He's been without work both times. It's worse now, he says.

Back in the early 1980s, when Schenk lost his job at a phone company, he was able to find several temporary jobs — including one testing pinball machines — to make ends meet until he landed full-time work nearly two years later.

But now Schenk, 55, of the Chicago suburb of Schaumburg, Ill., has been seeking work for a year and a half after losing his information technology job. Potential employers aren't interested "if you are not a perfect fit," he says.

The unemployment rate hit 10.2 percent in October. All told, 15.7 million Americans are out of work. Add in workers forced to settle for part-time work or those who have simply given up looking, and the rate is 17.5 percent.

Better in some ways
Only twice since World War II has unemployment topped 10 percent — now and from September 1982 to June 1983. In a few respects, life is better today for the unemployed than it was then.

Unemployment benefits are more generous, adjusted for inflation, and the Internet allows jobseekers to network, scan for openings and apply without leaving home.

And thanks in part to higher home values, Americans are worth more now. Measured in 2009 dollars, net worth comes to about $173,000 per person, compared with $94,000 in 1982, according to Lynn Reaser, president of the National Association for Business Economics.

Even if the average American has a larger cushion to fall back on, times are tough.

Major Market Indices

A much larger share of jobs these days — more than four out of five — are in the service sector, such as tax preparers, hair stylists and retail clerks. Those jobs generally pay less and offer fewer benefits than blue-collar manufacturing work.

Manufacturing, which typically offers more generous benefits, accounts for less than 9 percent of payrolls today — down from 19 percent in 1982.

Back then, the United Auto Workers persuaded the Big Three auto companies to pay up to 95 percent of the gap between a laid-off worker's unemployment benefits and what he or she made on the job.

But since the decline of the size and influence of unions, "that would be inconceivable today," says University of Illinois professor Michael LeRoy, who studies unions.

Unemployment also squeezes families tighter these days because they are less conservative about how they spend and save.

Far greater debt loads
People carry an average of about $46,000 in debt — mortgages, credit cards, auto loans and other consumer debt. That's a far bigger load than in 1982, when per capita debt totaled about $14,000 in today's dollars.

Image: Vicki Adriano works at the Lordstown General Moters plant
Tony Dejak  /  AP
Vicki Adriano works at the Lordstown General Moters plant in Lordstown, Ohio. Compared with 1982, Americans have more than triple the amount of debt and less than half the savings.
And savings, as a percentage of after-tax income, was only 2.7 percent last year, down from 10.9 percent in 1982. Americans stashed an average of just $940 last year, compared with $2,537 in 1982. That helps explain why the foreclosure rate runs about seven times higher today.

Not surprisingly, that means more Americans — about three times as many — are going bankrupt.

Lawrence Mishel, president of the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, says the ripple effects of the rising unemployment rate will be felt for years. He predicts the poverty rate for children will rise to 27 percent in 2011, from 18 percent in 2007.

"It will scar a generation of kids," he says.

If you're unemployed today, the odds are better that you'll stay unemployed longer than a generation ago.

And government surveys suggest that if you get laid off, it's more likely to be for good. Today's unemployed have been out of work about half a year on average. In the early 1980s, they spent about four months without jobs.

One reason is that industries such as construction and finance may never bulk back up to pre-recession levels. Even before the economy went south, demand for their products was inflated by the housing bubble.

Layoffs more permanent
Another reason layoffs are more permanent: Manufacturers these days are more aggressive about using technology to boost productivity — or they hire cheaper workers overseas as the economy improves.

Schenk, who is drawing unemployment aid, has managed to stay up-to-date on his mortgage and credit card payments, but at a significant cost to his financial future. "I'm burning through my savings," he says. "And the next thing I'll dip into is my retirement account."

Because he does not have health insurance, Schenk's financial pressures would grow dramatically if he became injured or sick. The Census Bureau says about one in four unemployed people have no insurance, compared with about one in five in 1987.

Schenk also lacked insurance when he lost the phone company job in the '80s. But he was younger then, and less concerned about his health. This time around, he paid for health coverage through the government's COBRA program. But that has run out.

The government program lets today's workers keep their insurance for 18 months after a layoff. But the premiums can be steep — up to $1,137 a month for families and $410 for individuals.

The federal stimulus program provides subsidized coverage for up to nine months for those who meet certain income thresholds. After that, they must pay the full cost.

Flimsier safety nets
For those who lose jobs today, the safety net is much flimsier.

Image: Unemployed auto workers in 1982
Scott Stewart  /  AP
Unidentified unemployed auto and steel workers picket in front of the White House in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 4, 1982.
Layoffs have forced some older workers into retirement, yet fewer of them can fall back on traditional pensions that pay a steady monthly sum. Only 11 percent of active workers have a traditional pension, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute. That's down from 50 percent in 1982.

Instead, more workers today have 401(k)-type retirement plans. But those have suffered huge hits in this downturn. The Standard & Poor's 500 index fell as much as 57 percent earlier this year from its October 2007 peak and is still down about 32 percent.

Schenk, who has had dozens of jobs interviews, says it's a struggle to remain upbeat and to keep searching. He knows for sure that one bad economic indicator is higher nowadays than a generation ago: He worries more.

"Back then it seemed like certain jobs were hit and you could still find those short little gigs," Schenk says. "This time it hit everything."

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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