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Originally published Sunday, April 1, 2012 at 8:02 PM

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Collateral damage of lost jobs

The forum gives the unemployed a voice and emphasizes the consequences of longterm joblessness.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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I enjoy payday, and it's not just because it means I can keep on paying my bills.

That's a big part of it, but, I also feel good that I've earned money doing something that I (and my employer) think has value.

Because work is important in multiple ways, it stands to reason that not having a job would do damage beyond the immediate lack of money. And that means the effects of this prolonged economic downturn will leave long-lasting scars. A project called Unemployed Nation has been capturing the stories of jobless people and exploring what being without work means for them.

Even as people return to work, they are left with economic gaps that are unlikely to be closed. Those gaps will affect future retirement and children's educational prospects among other things.

Unemployed Nation is a collaboration of numerous local institutions, chief among them the Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies at the University of Washington; the King County Labor Council, AFL-CIO; and the city of Seattle. Friday and Saturday they held hearings to listen to the stories of unemployed people and to get information and advice from experts in various fields that deal with employment.

During Friday's session in a packed room at the UW, Colin McMullin said being unemployed for three years has been the hardest period of his life. He was a Boeing engineer for 23 years before being bumped from his job. McMullin said he sends out applications and doesn't even get a response. "If I don't have any value to anyone else," he asked, "what kind of value can I have to myself?"

You can listen to some of the stories gathered before the events, and read about unemployment at the project's website: depts.washington.edu/unemploy. I found my way to the website Friday when I was thinking about work anyway.

All the buzz about a record Mega Millions jackpot before Friday's drawing had me thinking how nice it would be not to have to work. I'd still want to work, but maybe for myself. I'd need to work. I have friends who've retired, puttered around for a while, then gone job hunting because work is a central part of life for most people.

My older brother took his kitchen apart and refinished the cabinets, built a rec room and then redid it. He got a part-time job with his church, and I think my sister-in-law was relieved.

Work gives people a purpose; it imposes order on life. Work is part of a person's identity, sometimes defining it. And because humans are social animals, work can provide beneficial relationships.

All of that is missing when someone is involuntarily unemployed.

The Unemployed Nation project is ringing a bell, saying the impact of employment now and going forward is magnified by the numbers of unemployed and the lengths of time people are going without jobs.

One of the charts on the website, taken from an article in The Atlantic magazine, shows the number of people unemployed for 15-26 weeks has doubled since January 2007. The number unemployed for 27 weeks or longer has quadrupled since that baseline date.

Studies have shown unemployed people are more likely to suffer from depression and other health problems as their unemployment persists. The Unemployed Nation site links to a New York Times blog that includes findings from several studies of unemployment, including one from Denmark that showed a decline in reading skills among the unemployed.

In one of the videos on the website, Jodi Hodson, an electrician who's been unemployed more than a year, said, "It's very scary. It's very humbling. It's very embarrassing." She has three children, including two daughters in college.

Unemployment assistance has been a help to her, but she doesn't want anyone to think she wouldn't rather be working. "We're not asking for a handout," she said, "we're hardworking Americans."

And with massive unemployment, the ills of the jobless are bound to have an impact on the broader community. That's an argument for, at the very least, maintaining a safety net that softens some of the damage to the unemployed.

Jerry Large's column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com.

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About Jerry Large

I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
jlarge@seattletimes.com | 206-464-3346

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