Opinion — ‘Eating our seed corn’: Struggling young workers, our economic backbone, need help

Published 5:15 pm Friday, February 11, 2022

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You don’t have to get out much to know that our commonwealth and our nation aren’t doing so well.

You see it in the volatile stock markets, as fickle and easily spooked as a school of minnows, with freak-show dips and rebounds in just one day’s session.

You see it in the supermarkets, with some items not replenished for weeks because of shipping breakdowns that stretch from transoceanic supersized container ships to missing workers in the stores themselves.

You see it in the eyes of people who either can’t find work — at least jobs that allow them to keep food on the table, the lights on and the rent paid — including rising generations who are giving up and dropping out decades ahead of retirement age.

Yep, the pandemic has done us dirty. And it hasn’t let up.

It’s made us insular strangers, one from the other. It’s made a mockery of traditional business notions of customer service as shops, stores and service providers (including those as large and essential as the Postal Service and the Internal Revenue Service) beg for workers. It’s made the ability of businesses to do business a crapshoot because a dysfunctional supply chain has confounded orders for essential goods and products. It’s pocked our land with nearly 900,000 new headstones in cemeteries from sea to shining sea, COVID-19’s most fiendish legacy.

Pensioners see inflation demand an ever greater share of their finite fixed incomes. In Virginia, those severed from employment through no fault of their own waited month after futile month for some word from a broken Virginia Employment Commission about the status of claims filed long ago, in some cases calendar year 2020.

But nobody’s having a harder time overall than people relatively new to the workforce, the young, tech-savvy, imaginative minds in their 20s and 30s – Millenials and Gen Z – who are supposed to energize the nation’s gross domestic product but in too many cases see the dreams preceding generations took for granted ripped from their grasp.

Jamie Werger, 30, is just one of them.

“I work 30, 40 hours a week for a grocery store. Pay’s $300-400 a week. That would be take-home, after taxes,” Werger said. “So basically each month, I’m operating on a little over $1,000 – about $1,250 and some change.”

That along with the veterans disability benefits her roommate receives can just barely meet the bills in the Richmond area where they live – on a good month anyway.

Werger’s pay alone would strain to cover a month’s rent for a modest apartment.

“And that would leave about $250 for utilities and food and everything for what’s effectively a fulltime job. It’s why so many people my age live in houses or apartments with two or three other people. You’ve got to be able to support each other because there’s no way we can support ourselves,” she said.

When the vets’ benefits alone no longer covered the expenses for Jamie and her friend, “I had to start working to help ends meet,” she said. Five days a week, she works the checkout lanes at a supermarket in a working-class suburb in Henrico County.

Setting aside anything for a rainy day, for a savings account, for a down payment on a house or a car has been difficult from the get-go for this dispirited generation that came of age during the Great Recession.

Consider the employment picture in the years since this generation moved into the working world. Twenty years ago, the jobless rate in Virginia was still stubbornly over 6.5 percent, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics figures. It crept downward at a rate of about half a percentage point per year until finally, by the end of 2019, it had returned to the sunny levels before the housing bubble burst and the credit markets tanked in 2008, creating the worst economic disaster since the Great Depression.

Then, when a deadly novel coronavirus became a pandemic in early 2020, unemployment more than quadrupled in Virginia, rocketing to 11.3 percent in one month – April. The number of unemployment claims shot from a little over 114,000 in March to nearly 500,000 a month later. By the end of 2021, the unemployment rate receded to 3.4 percent – just before the new omicron variant of the virus sent another chill through the economy.

Now, Millennials and Gen Z look on in deepening hopelessness as inflation pushes those basics of the American dream into the realm of impossibility.

Even people with college degrees (many saddled with repaying the crushing debt of student loans) find it hard to land jobs today that pay living wages. And when they do, workplace strains from the pandemic and the unsteady economy create levels of burnout for them more typical of hexagenerians and septuagenarians who are already circling the drain toward retirement. At Werger’s workplace, for instance, absences from COVID-19 cases can leave the store staff down by one-fourth to one-third from its normal operating strength, leaving fewer associates to do all the work of stocking shelves and ringing up purchases.

Thus, alarming numbers of what should be the strongest, most vital and forward-looking segment of working America are tendering their two-week notices in what has become known as the Great Resignation.

The country misses so much of what keeps Jamie Werger and her contemporaries awake at night because it views so much of our economy through the lens of a breathless contemporary media, obsessed with minute-to-minute fluctuations of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, the New York Stock Exchange and NASDAQ.

But working folk, particularly younger people trying to get by, will tell you that those numbers have little if any bearing on their struggles to keep their heads above water. When you don’t have money to invest, bull markets mean nothing to households prioritizing monthly bills — like which ones must be paid now and which will have to wait a month – or two, or three, Werger said.

“I was in that situation before I moved down here,” said Werger, who came to Virginia from Ohio last year. “You have to say, ‘Oh well, this one’s only two months late, I can let it go one more.’ You do what you have to to keep the utilities on, and sometimes one of them will slip.

“I’ve had more disconnections than I can count. I’ve had, I’d say, five or six times I’ve had the electricity cut off,” she added.

It hasn’t gone unnoticed that the General Assembly is considering a package of tax cuts that will send some help. Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a Republican, and his Democratic predecessor, Ralph Northam, have both recommended that the state tax on groceries be rolled back. That stands to cut a few dollars off the typical grocery bill, but that is important to folks who count every penny.

Other proposals under consideration would roll back the recent tax increase on gasoline, increase the standard deduction to state income taxes and – perhaps meaningfully for Werger and her friend – exempt veterans’ benefits from taxation in the commonwealth. Those could become law this year.

But until they can earn a living wage for a full week’s work, much of what should be the nascent backbone of the state’s economy – and the emerging leaders of not only business but government – is relegated to the margins of poverty and irrelevance.

It brings to mind the bracing mountain wisdom two decades ago of a Virginia legislator and country store proprietor who had known Depression-era hardship firsthand but was lucky enough to live in times that afforded more opportunity to people who worked hard.

“Y’all, we’re eating our seed corn,” the late Del. A. Victor Thomas, D-Roanoke County, would admonish colleagues on the House Appropriations Committee when they considered shortchanging priorities dear to him, particularly public schools, environmental stewardship and Virginia’s youth. And he was right.

As a commonwealth and as a country, in sectors both public and private, we’re doing on a massive scale exactly what Vic warned us about.

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at blewis@virginiamercury.com.