Three years after the Great Recession

THREE YEARS AFTER THE GREAT RECESSION: Legacy dims hope to break economic malaise

2012-06-24T00:00:00Z 2012-06-25T01:33:32Z THREE YEARS AFTER THE GREAT RECESSION: Legacy dims hope to break economic malaiseBy Bowdeya Tweh and Keith Benman Times Staff Writers

Things should have been better by now.

At least that is what Nick Kasparian Jr. thought after Rieter Automotive Systems closed its Lowell manufacturing plant in November 2010, putting him out of a job. But a year and a half later, the 58-year-old still has no regular paycheck and is living on a partial pension supplemented by Social Security disability payments.

Kasparian said it's hard to prove the economy is on the mend when people continue to struggle to find work, afford health care insurance and sell their homes.

"As far as the recession, I don't think it's over," the Lowell resident said. "I don't think we've seen anything yet. The number of people that I know that are still unemployed that are scratching for odd jobs. ... It's ridiculous."

This month marks the three-year anniversary of the “official” end of the recession as declared by the National Bureau of Economic Research. The bureau earlier tagged the recession's start as December 2007. Its 18-month span made it the longest recession since World War II.

But the fact the bureau has declared the recession over offers little solace to millions of workers like Kasparian who lost jobs during the span or during the essentially jobless recovery that has gripped areas like Northwest Indiana.

NWI's downturn

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' employment data show Northwest Indiana has benefited little from job growth in the nation as a whole.

In fact, the northwest corner of the state still has fewer people working now than it did in June 2009.

“When the national economy slows down, our economy just gets hammered,” said Don Coffin, a professor of economics at Indiana University Northwest. “And I don't know if there is much you can do about it.”

Recessions here traditionally have an outsize effect because so many workers are employed in heavy manufacturing, which is quick to feel the effects of decreased consumer demand nationally, Coffin said.

Lake, Porter, Jasper and Newton counties lost a combined 18,300 jobs from the beginning of the recession in December 2007 until its end, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

At that point, total employment in the four counties had declined to 265,300. You would have to go back to 1994 to find that few people working in the region.

The region lost still more jobs in the seven months after the recession's end. Total employment now stands at 264,400, about 900 jobs less than in June 2009.

The Greater Chicago region has fared little better, losing almost a quarter-million jobs during the recession and only gaining 40,900 back since the recession's end, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Some of Rust Belt in recovery

The situation in Northwest Indiana contrasts with the statewide situation, where late last year a surge in hiring began that has not yet slowed down.

Indiana now stands third among states in the nation in job creation since the end of the recession, with overall job growth of 4.26 percent in those three years.

“We are seeing Indiana coming back as a result of the positive business climate we have relative to other states,” said Anthony Sindone, a continuing lecturer in economics at Purdue North Central who studies the local economy.

The recovery in Indiana and other Rust Belt states also appears to be following the old rule of thumb that those states hardest hit in a recession will initially see some of the fastest job recovery, according to Coffin.

Michigan currently ranks fourth in the nation in job growth since the end of the recession, Kentucky seventh, and Ohio 17th. Illinois lags at 34th.

Main Street is hurting still

Getting a job in 2009 after being out of work for more than a year was a godsend for Whiting resident Amy Wilson. But the next challenge became trying to get ahead of the past-due bills and the previous financial wreckage from being laid off from Metal-Matic in Illinois in 2008.

More than two years after being hired at an Illinois manufacturing firm, Wilson said she still is playing catch up with credit card debt. She said any significant emergency could undo the progress she has made.

“I would love to give you a positive note, but to be honest, no,” said Wilson, when asked if the economy was improving. “It's like we're always on the brink. Things are getting more expensive. Gas is getting more expensive, and your paycheck is not.”

Unemployed sort out options

Others with the good fortune to land job training benefits have taken the advice of job counselors and are preparing for the jobs of the future.

Welder Rick Welton was laid off with 500 others at Union Tank Car in May 2008. Not long after, he found himself sitting in a classroom at South Suburban College.

“My counselor said, 'Oh, you want to use your brain instead of your body for change,' " Welton said of the reaction to his decision.

He since has earned a degree in forensics at the college and now wants to go for a four-year degree.

Still, Welton laughs when told the recession ended in June 2009 and that the national unemployment rate has dropped to 8.2 percent in May from a post-recession high of 10 percent.

“Yeah, right,” he said. “I don't understand about the numbers, what they're based on. There's still a lot of people out of work.”

The 59-year-old said retirement savings and wisely investing his severance pay have left him better off than many, but he knows things are still tough out there.

Others near what at one time was the traditional retirement age in America are barely hanging on.

Hammond resident Mary Ellen Slazyk said her husband Roy's unemployment benefits will be cut off this month, along with his health insurance. He lost his job when the Oshkosh Specialty Vehicles plant in Harvey closed and finding work has been elusive in the 18 months since.

Now, she said the plan is to hold out for two years until he can apply for Social Security retirement benefits at age 62.

“I think it's getting worse, and I don't see it getting better for quite a while,” Slazyk said. “When I look around my neighborhood and see the empty houses, it doesn't tell me the economy is getting better at all.”

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