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Pain persists for the jobless, like the unemployed father who removed his son's braces with a pliers

The Raw Deal: How Wall Street and Washington broke faith with working families

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Construction workers have been particularly hard hit  during the recession as new construction dried up.

Rick Pedroncelli/AP

Dave Esmay made a good life for his family as a construction superintendent in North Carolina, managing commercial projects worth $15 million to $30 million.

Then came the Great Recession. In North Carolina, and many other states, the construction industry collapsed. And Esmay lost his job.

His family life was wracked by “stress ... from not having any money,” Esmay recalls. He cashed in his retirement account and sold his truck, and when the Esmays could not make the payments on their mortgage, they lost their home.

A daughter postponed plans for post-graduate study, and took work as a waitress.

Esmay couldn’t afford to keep paying the orthodontist, so he took his son’s braces off himself, with a pair of pliers.

For folks like Esmay, today’s federal unemployment report contains a mix of good and bad news.

Things are certainly not as awful as they were. Unemployment, overall, dropped from 9 percent to 8.6 percent. For Americans with college and post-graduate degrees, it stands at only 4.4 percent.

But the news from the construction sector, where Esmay saw signs of life this fall, was just slightly less tragic than it has been. Since peaking at the decade-high rate of 24.7 percent last year, the unemployment rate in the industry has decreased to 13.1 percent.

And for some classes of America — teenagers, minorities, and those without a high-school diploma — the specter of double-digit unemployment remains a stubborn presence in their lives. Indeed, unemployment among African-Americans actually rose in the last month, from 15.1 percent to 15.5 percent.

The welcome drop in the unemployment rate was fueled, moreover, by the despair of many job seekers. The Labor Department reported that 315,000 Americans stopped looking for work and simply left the workforce in November. The percentage of the population in the workforce is at a sorry rate of 58.5 percent.

Meanwhile, the number of long-term unemployed, those jobless for 27 weeks and over, “was little changed at 5.7 million and accounted for 43 percent of the unemployed,” the department said.

For working families, “America’s economic security is under challenge more than at any time in the last 25 years,” says Yale professor Jacob Hacker.

Hacker and a team of scholars studying economic insecurity for the Rockefeller Foundation reported last week that the percentage of Americans experiencing a major economic loss without an adequate financial safety net has leaped from 14.3 percent in 1986 to 20.5 percent today.

After months of scanning the Internet for openings, and watching even low-pay retail jobs go to younger men because, the companies said, he was over-qualified, Esmay finally got some promising job interviews this fall.

But the Great Recession has forever affected the lives of Esmay and his wife and four children.

“I’m 50 years old and back at zero,” Esmay says. “I could not have imagined this five years ago.”

It’s been three years, he says, “of hell.”