By Akeya Dickson
NNPA News Service
WASHINGTON (NNPA) – The woman selling you lottery tickets at 7-11 could be an engineer with multiple degrees. The guy bagging your groceries may have earned a six-figure salary in the not-too-distant past. Welcome to underemployment, the new norm in America.
As of April, there are nearly 8 million adults in this country who are underemployed, defined as those working part-time jobs up to 34 hours for economic reasons; more than 1 million of them are Black, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. California and Nevada are the states seeing the highest rates of underemployment, while North Dakota has the lowest.
An increasing number of underemployed people, which combines the percentage of workers who are unemployed with the percentage working part-time but wanting full-time work, are turning to charitable organizations for assistance.
“One of the misconceptions is that people who need food assistance are just the homeless,” said Marian Barton Peele, senior director of partner relations for the Capital Area Food Bank. “There is an unemployment problem in our country. But a bigger problem is actually underemployment, where the job you have doesn’t provide for your needs.”
Hunger in America 2010, a comprehensive study of domestic hunger by nonprofit organization Feeding America, conducted 61,000 interviews and surveyed 37,000 feeding agencies. The study found that 36 percent of the households they serve have at least one person working. The organization, which delivers food through its nationwide network of member food banks, has seen a 46 percent increase in the number of people they feed. That translates to 37 million people, or one in eight Americans relying on Feeding America for food and groceries.
“The underemployed have a low salary, don’t have health insurance. That’s why people are working two or three jobs, just to make ends meet at the end of the month,” said Peele, who coordinates food distribution to more than 700 nonprofit partner organizations that provide food for those at risk of hunger in the Washington Metropolitan area.
Shabach Ministries’ Emergency Empowerment Center in Landover, Md., is affiliated with the First Baptist Church of Glenarden and is a partner agency with the Capital Area Food Bank.
Gwen Pope, the center’s manager, said that she is definitely seeing an increase in underemployed people needing assistance from outside agencies to put food on the table and clothes on their families’ backs. First noticing an uptick as far back as seven years ago, she said that she feels like underemployment is actually the new norm for now as companies lay off people or close down altogether.
“These are people who had these jobs for 15 or 20 years. These people were making $80,000 to $100,000,” she said. “They are educated, have graduate degrees, but knew that they had to go out into the marketplace and find jobs. They were living in those $500,000 to $600,000 houses. These people have had to downsize because they couldn’t afford it any longer.”
Last year, the center served more than 12,000 households and more than 35,000 people. In addition to providing groceries that will last a family from three weeks to a month, the center supplies clothing and house ware.
“Because we’re a small place, we’re blessed to still be open as so many other pantries and places are growing,” she said. “We’re still growing because the need is growing. When they come through the doors, they are really stressed. And we try to motivate them.”
Pope dismisses altogether the stereotype that some have that people who ask for assistance are lazy and taking advantage of these services.
“I find that the percentage is just so minute, it’s not worth mentioning,” she explained. “When it comes to the underemployed, these are people who have challenges asking for help. Everyone is treated with dignity and respect. They’re running from job to job, working four hours here and there. It’s affecting their morale, their home life and the amount of time they get to spend with their family.”
Underemployment was up 19 percent in mid-February from 18.7 percent in January, according to a Gallup poll. Administrators of the poll noted, “Regardless of what the government reports, Gallup’s unemployment and underemployment measures show a sharp deterioration in job market conditions since mid-January.”
And while much attention has been paid to recent college graduates being jobless or underemployed, Pope said that it’s a real problem for people who are mid-career professionals with families.
“I’m not talking about people who are just coming out of college looking for jobs. What is disturbing is these are people who are 45 years old and older,” she said. “The jobs that are available are normally the jobs that they’re kids would be taking. They’re in direct competition with them. That’s a real reality check.”
Nonprofit organizations such as Suited for Change specializes in helping low-income women secure professional employment, are adept at dealing with the chronically unemployed and sees about 1,000 women each year through 71 referral agencies in the community.
“I think underemployment has always been an issue with our clients. Most of our residents in the District come from Ward 8, and I think it has the highest unemployment in the city,” said Sharon Flynn, director of the Washington, D.C.-based agency that provides job training and suits for women looking for jobs. “Some of those who are underemployed may have childcare jobs and want to get better-paying jobs with better stability. Some of them will get computer skills or go into the nursing field.”
Underemployment is not expected to end soon.
It’s going to be years before we see us coming out of this,” Pope said. “For some people who thought this was going to be a temporary situation, it’s going to be a permanent situation. Taking these piecemeal jobs, it actually erodes your resume. There’s really no place for you to grow in these part-time jobs.”