Print Post
  • Unemployment and low-wage jobs are common. But some working-class Americans manage to escape them. Here's why. Tweet This
  • It's hard to get your life together or find a job without the help of family members and friends. Tweet This

Asked about her plans for after high school, Savannah replied, “I really didn’t think about it. I’m not really the type of person to have a plan. I just go.”

She attended vocational school in high school, taking classes in graphic arts.

“I wanted to get into the film industry, but it never happened,” she said matter-of-factly. Now, about two years after graduation, she had struck on the idea of becoming a funeral home director—she heard you could make about $80,000 a year, and she wanted to be rich someday—but as she said it, it seemed more like a distant hope than a realistic goal.

“When you think about the future,” my wife and research partner, Amber, asked, “what are the things that you want out of life?”

“I never really thought about it,” she said, “because I kind of just go one day at a time.”

When she graduated, the economy was in the throes of the Great Recession, and she didn’t find a job, delivering newspapers, until a year and a half after graduation. But when we interviewed her, she had lost her job a few weeks before, and she was in the process of looking for a new job, with no luck so far.

She had spent the vast majority of her two years since high school graduation unemployed, but she seemed less devastated than stuck. There was a sadness in her voice, a resignation in her shrug. She didn’t have any income, but as she explained, her new boyfriend “works his ass off” and had assured her that his income from the factory meant that she didn’t have to get a job (though she wondered how feasible that was in today’s economy).

Adding to her troubles, she had become estranged from her family.

“I don’t speak with my mother anymore,” she said, explaining that her mom “kicked [her] when [she] was down.” After she had lost her job, she says her mom kicked her out of the house, which is why, when we interviewed her, she was in between living at her aunt’s house and her new boyfriend’s house. She also still didn’t understand why her mom had sent her younger brother to juvenile hall when he was 13. “Because he was unruly, I guess, is what she claimed. But he was 13, smoking cigarettes. Wow! I mean, come on.”

Her dad had been in prison for as long as she could remember. “He was a bad drug addict, alcoholic. My mom is an alcoholic, too.”

She had always said that she didn’t want to be an alcoholic like her parents. It’s why she wasn’t looking forward to her twenty-first birthday—the ritual of going out to a bar and drinking. She wouldn’t do any of that, she said.

“My mother neglected me a lot,” she said. “Not so much my needs—like I always had, you know, food, shelter, clothes, blah, blah, blah, the necessities. But I had a lot of problems growing up. I was depressed a lot growing up and my mom didn't wanna have anything to do with that at all.”

Beginning in junior high, she got picked on a lot by classmates. She weighed almost 250 pounds, but then she got sick of being the butt of people’s jokes. People look at her now, she said, and marvel at how much weight she lost and how great she looks, and say that her depression must have lifted.

“But it’s still there,” she said. “But what can you do about it? Just kind of live with it, I guess. I mean, try not to let it get to me, but sometimes it does.”

“What do you think is the cause of it,” Amber inquired, “or you’re not really sure?”

She thought she was probably born that way, “because, I mean, nothing really traumatizing has ever really happened to me.” Except there was the time, she noted, when she was 16 and she walked into her bathroom and her uncle was shooting up heroin.

But, she added, “I don’t think that’s really traumatizing. I mean, hell, growing up in [Maytown] you think the kids here have seen a lot worse than that.” She was just “born depressed,” she repeated.

After high school, life didn’t get much better for her: she moved in with a man ten years her senior who treated her badly and cheated on her, and yet—in a decision that she now deeply regrets—she continued living with him. “He just kind of used me basically,” she later realized, adding “I kind of him used him, too.” He made about $3,000 a week, and handed her $1,000. When she finally realized that she was basically his “house maid,” she left—and quickly moved in with a new boyfriend.


Ethan was depressed, too. He attended the same vocational school that Savannah attended in high school, but unlike Savannah, his studies led to a job at an electrical company immediately after high school. He actually had the job before he finished high school: in his senior year, he was able to take class part of the day, and work for the electrical company the other part of the day. He started out making $8.50 an hour, and after three years he was making $10.25—less than he would have liked to make, but he knew that there would eventually be good money in the job, and he figured he’d retire with the same company.

Then the Great Recession hit, and his employer had no choice but to let him go. He still wanted to be an electrician, and he was motivated: “I wanted to be real successful in a career.” But no one was hiring. He applied at about four electrical companies every week and followed up with phone calls, with no results. One month passed after another, and he started doubting himself: “Why am I even here? I can’t do nothing.” That’s when he fell into a depression.

He had a girlfriend that he hoped to marry soon, and had $3,000 saved up. But the savings soon disappeared, and getting married took a backseat to surviving. He gained weight. His dad had always taught him to be the “manly man,” but with unemployment, “I felt like my role as the guy was being cut away.”

After looking for an electrical job for a year and a half, with no success, he finally got a break. His dad knew an electrician who needed help on a project, and Ethan jumped at the opportunity. “My dad helped me get back on my feet with another job,” he noted.

But when that job ended, he went back on unemployment for a few more months.

That’s when his mom noticed that Costco was hiring gas station attendants, with a starting wage of $11 an hour—more than he ever made in his three years as an electrician.

“If they pay good money, why don’t you just apply and see what happens?” prodded his mom. So he applied, and he got the job.

When I interviewed him, he worked as a gas station attendant, but he hoped to begin working in the tire center because an employee there had been “slacking,” and Ethan figured that his position might soon become available. “There they top out at $22 [an hour] to change tires,” he noted, which is why he hoped to retire from Costco. A couple years later, when I caught up with Ethan again, not only was he was working in the tire center at Costco, but he also had married his girlfriend, they had bought a house, and were expecting their first child.


Both Savannah and Ethan attended vocational school, but their paths diverged from there. Ethan’s vocational education gave him a straight path to a trade, but Savannah was unemployed for over a year. Whereas Ethan said that he was very motivated to succeed in a career and described a plan for getting there, Savannah seemed like she was just trying to survive. Ethan’s interviews are peppered with comments like “my dad helped me…” and “my dad always taught me…” and how his mom spurred him to get a job. By contrast, Savannah’s dad was in prison for most of her life, and now she was estranged from her mom. Both struggled to find a job and described suffering from depression, but whereas Ethan was able to rebound, Savannah had not.

Can conservative philosophy shed any light on their divergent paths?

As Matthew Loftus points out in a prescient piece in The American Conservative, conservatism has a lot in theory to say about the importance of mediating institutions and civil society and strong families and thriving communities—so it should help us. But we need to do a better job of applying that theory to concrete instances. Too often, we tell people to “get your life together” or “go find a job” without any reflection about how it is that people—social creatures that we are—typically do that.

Many of us have experiences like Ethan’s: his mom saw a job opportunity, and encouraged her depressed son to apply for it. Forced to stand on his own motivation and efforts, Ethan might have never learned of the opportunity, or taken advantage of it while suffering depression. Similarly, many of us (though not all) went to college because that’s what our parents told us we should do, and then we got jobs through the connections we made through college and friends and family.

This became apparent in our interviews. Like Ethan, the people who were stably employed had also encountered bouts of unemployment and times at low-wage jobs, but they typically had the kind of connections that I didn’t see among those who seemed stuck in low-wage work or struggling with unemployment for an extended period. For instance, when Gavin and his wife first married, they settled in Ohio because his wife had a friend who owned a painting business and offered him a job. When he got laid off because of the recession, he promptly found a job delivering packages—until a friend from church told him about a higher-paying job for the shipping and receiving department of a pharmaceutical company. I could go on with similar examples—and with counter-examples of how those who bounced around from one low-wage job to another often lacked support from and security in their families.

Similarly, when I reflect on the difference between my own serene confidence in the durability of marriage and the anxiety about a marriage falling apart that I sometimes see among my friends from fragmented families, I honestly cannot give myself a lot of credit. My confidence was given to me by my parents, who inherited it from their parents, and so on. Yes, I must take actions to sustain my marriage, but I’m doing that within the security of having witnessed my parents’ loving marriage.

As Loftus wrote, “Talking about personal character and cultural decay as black boxes from which spring forth either virtue or victimhood is a lazy habit of thought that has no place in conservative discourse; discipline is always imposed by someone or something, and while deprivation is often a means of discipline, it is hardly the most useful or most prescient one. Relationships discipline as well as support, and good behavior often comes from good neighbors.”

And there is the nub of it: those with a deficit of connections and trust and meaning and love can begin to remedy these deficits by encountering people and communities with a surplus of connections and trust and meaning and love. If the human person is a social creature, then to combat the great Coming Apart, we need a new Coming Together.