Jackson, Michigan, is home to one of this year’s most closely contested U.S. House races, with both candidates promising to bring jobs back to an area suffering from 13 percent unemployment.
Nick Barr, an out-of-work electrician, said the election is the least of his concerns. He’s lost his house and his truck, and has told his three kids they can’t play hockey anymore because he can’t afford the cost.
“Honestly, I’ve been so busy trying to find work I haven’t paid much attention,” Barr, 31, said outside the local Michigan Works! office, where the unemployed come to seek help preparing resumes, search job listings and use Internet connections. “I’ve always been pretty secure in my line of work, but now there’s just nothing.”
With joblessness at 9.6 percent nationwide last month, the economy has emerged as a top issue in Nov. 2’s midterm elections. Yet many of those like Barr who’ve been hurt most by the slow economy say they have no intention of going to the polls. That’s bad news for Democrats, who may see little reward after spending months pushing jobless-benefit extensions through Congress over Republican objections to their cost.
“There is such a leap between casting a vote and any help for being unemployed that I don’t think most of them make that linkage,” said Cliff Zukin, a pollster at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey, who surveys the jobless. “I don’t think they see voting as a way of redressing grievances.”
Polling experts such as Zukin say the unemployed are the mirror image of those most likely to vote in midterm contests. Turnout in off-year elections tends to be dominated by older, better-educated and wealthier voters who are among the least likely to be unemployed. Government statistics show joblessness spikes among younger, less-educated Americans.
“The profile of voters is upscale and the profile of those who are unemployed is decidedly not,” Zukin said.
Turnout among the unemployed has lagged behind those with jobs by at least a dozen percentage points in every midterm election of the past quarter century. Even in 1982, when joblessness nationwide was 10.8 percent -- the only time in the past 60 years an election was held amid worse unemployment than today -- just 34 percent of those out of work reported casting a ballot; 50 percent of those with jobs said they voted.
In Jackson, a blue-collar town 80 miles west of Detroit, the incumbent Democratic congressman, Mark Schauer, 49, is trying to fend off a challenge from the man he defeated in 2008, Republican Tim Walberg, 59.
Both promise to restore the economy in an area once a hub of auto-parts suppliers that has since seen companies such as Schaumburg, Illinois-based Sparton Corp. and Livonia, Michigan-based TRW Automotive Holdings Corp. take jobs elsewhere. Schauer has promised to fight international trade agreements he says promote outsourcing, while Walberg has proposed tax cuts he says would jog hiring.
Neither pitch resonates with many of the 5,000 people who pass each month through the city’s Michigan Works! office. On a recent day jobseekers browsed a thin list of help-wanted ads that included openings for a lathe operator, a “greeter” at the Oasis Quick Lube, a sales job at Team Hillsdale Chrysler and a $10 per hour position at Doctor Flue, a chimney-cleaning service that requires applicants to “be able to climb chimneys.”
Another job, at a Bob Evans Farms Inc. food-processing facility, titled “Harvest Floor,” requires one year experience in “butchering/boning” along with a willingness to “work in consistently cold temperatures the entire shift.” It pays $10 per hour.
Scott Zollin, 46, a former welder, is getting state-funded retraining at Jackson Community College in heating and cooling after being jobless for two years. “Will I find a job there? No,” he said. “Because everyone in the heating and cooling industry is laid off also, so it’s all just a big farce.”
Richmond Morgan, 56, who lost his job at a steel mill 21 months ago, is getting retraining in maintaining computer networks. He too is skeptical he’ll find a job when he finishes his associated degree next year. “Why would you hire old dad at 60 years of age for 50,60 thousand a year when you can hire young Johnny over here who’s fresh out of school and he’s willing to work for 19.5?” said Morgan. “Who would you hire?”
For some, the search for work has bred cynicism that politicians have an answer to the joblessness. Shanique Parker, 21, who two years ago cast her first vote for President Barack Obama, dismissed the candidates’ promises. “It’s just talk to get into office,” she said. “It’s not going to change anything.”
Darrin Hogan, 41, out of work since February, says he has no confidence the jobs will ever come back and is considering leaving Jackson. “There is nothing here,” he said. “If they was going to bring them, they would have brought them -- you don’t wait until an election to bring jobs.”
Brooke Stiles, 30, who has been out of work for a year, said she hasn’t heard much about the candidates’ promises -- or about the race at all, despite a flood of television ads --after cutting cable television out of her budget. And “it’s not like you can go to your neighbors to borrow their TV, because they’re unemployed, too,” she said.
To be sure, some of the jobless in Jackson said they plan to vote. What’s more, the AFL-CIO is trying to organize the jobless in Michigan and eight other states with high unemployment on behalf of Democrats.
Zollin, the welder, said he’ll vote because that’s what he’s always done and also because “I cannot pick up a gun and go shoot” politicians, even though “what half of them need is a piece of lead.”
Still, when pressed on how he might vote, Zollin called both Schauer and Walberg “crooks,” and said he may just write his own name in.