WASHINGTON — Two weeks after Allen Black bought a brand-new Nissan Altima, his coal mining job at Booth Energy in Martin County, Ky. was abruptly eliminated. The company blamed market conditions. Black, who’s 49 and from Paintsville, Ky., blamed the Environmental Protection Agency.
“I wouldn’t have made the decision to purchase a vehicle if I knew it was coming,” he said. Indeed, his unemployment insurance provides only 30 percent of his former $65,000-plus annual salary.
Black is angry with the EPA for what he called its “war on coal” by holding up permits for surface mining and costing jobs. But he’s equally frustrated with the failure of President Barack Obama and Republican White House nominee Mitt Romney to focus more attention on the job shortage and the plight of unemployed workers like himself.
Whether it’s Medicare, taxes, abortion rights, Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital or the latest gaffe du jour, the economy has taken a backseat to attack ads, name calling and narrow concerns.
“I look at the election process now and this is like watching ‘The Real Housewives of New Jersey,’ ” Black said. “It has taken on the form of some sort of grotesque reality show.”
Given the chance, he’d tell both candidates: “Put the mud down. Go wash your hands, roll up your sleeves and get to work on fixing this country instead of slandering each other.”
As the nation celebrates American workers this Labor Day, many of the 12.8 million unemployed Americans who are looking for their next jobs probably share Black’s sentiment.
The unemployment rate in July was 8.3 percent, and it’s remained above 8 percent for the length of the Obama presidency. In political terms, that’s unexplored terrain. Since World War II, no president has run for re-election carrying that kind of economic baggage.
Not all the news has been bad. By July, the labor market had gained back 4 million of the 8.7 million jobs lost in the Great Recession.
But the remaining 4.7 million jobs and another 5 million that would have been created in an otherwise sound economy mean that the country is operating at a deficit of 9.7 million jobs, said Heidi Shierholz, a labor economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal research center.
More than 5 million people, or roughly 40 percent of the unemployed, have been out of work for at least six months, the government estimates. With more than three unemployed people for every job opening, finding work remains a tall order as employers delay hiring amid tepid demand for goods and services.
Since February 2010, the private sector has produced 29 straight months of job growth, adding more than 4.5 million positions, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. But over the same period, state and local governments have cut more than half a million positions, largely because of budget reductions.
Candace Falkner, of Cicero, Ill., hasn’t worked since 2010, when she lost her job as a professor of psychology at Roosevelt University in Chicago. Her unemployment insurance expired in May, but she’s in the running for a temporary position that would help her make ends meet.
While Congress largely has blocked Obama’s attempts to create more jobs through federal spending, Falkner credited the president for pressing to extend unemployment insurance, which has helped her and millions of others weather the recession.
“He hasn’t forgotten those who are disadvantaged, but that doesn’t necessarily improve the economy,” Falkner said.
While she said Romney’s business experience was valuable, she worries that he can’t relate to the less fortunate because of his wealth and background.
“When you’re dealing with the economy, you’re dealing with people’s lives,” she said. “So he’s going to have to put some human affection for human beings into his plan.”
Black, the laid-off coal miner, is ready to give Romney a chance.
“As far as I’m concerned, I’ve got to take the lesser of two evils,” he said. “I know what Obama’s going to do. He’s already shown that.”
Obama wants to extend tax cuts to families making less than $250,000 a year and let them expire for the wealthy. His American Jobs Act proposal touts job creation through infrastructure investment and increased funding to state and local governments to stop public-sector job losses.
Romney’s campaign has tried to refocus the race on economic issues. He wants to cut taxes and regulations for businesses to spur job creation, while cutting government programs and spending to trim the federal deficit.
But his choice of Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., a wonky conservative who favors deep cuts in social programs, as a running mate, as well as nagging questions about Romney’s personal taxes and business record, have further obscured jobs as an issue.
Steven Stapleton of Akron, Ohio, who was jobless for more than year, thinks Romney has a tin ear when it comes to the needs of working-class Americans.
“He’s not about me,” Stapleton said. “He doesn’t identify with me or anybody who’s trying to make it out here. I don’t care what he says.”
After he lost his job of 23 years as a department store security supervisor a year ago, Stapleton’s search began to border on desperation.
“I’ve been looking in logistics. I’ve been looking in operational management. I’ve been looking in production supervising,” he said. “I’ve looked in the insurance business. I looked into AT&T as an on-site premises technician. I’ve done all types of interviews and applications online, and nothing. Nothing that would give me the wage I need to take care of my family.”
He recently found work hauling fuel to natural gas extraction sites, but his frustration with the presidential campaign hasn’t ebbed.
“Are they going to waste time and money talking about what the other guy didn’t do until Election Day?” he said. “Saying Obamacare doesn’t work? That’s not a plan. What are you going to do for the next four years?”
In Charleston, S.C., Kitty Kent hasn’t worked since her job with the U.S. Census Bureau ended last year, and she isn’t confident that she’ll find work anytime soon.
At 59, she relies on unemployment insurance and money left by her recently deceased parents to pay the mortgage on her condo.
“I think I’m now caught in a double whammy,” she said. “I’m in two groups not being considered: old people and unemployed people.”
The lack of attention to the economy disturbs her, too, but she said she wished more people would just pay attention to the campaign.
Gary Bentley, another eastern Kentucky coal miner, has been paying attention, perhaps even more so since June 20.
Punching out that day after his 10-hour shift, Bentley, 29, was about to go home when his bosses at Arch Coal Inc. called the miners together and dropped a bomb. Effective immediately – and without prior notice – the mine where Bentley had worked for a decade was ceasing operations.
Similar cuts that day at other Arch facilities claimed 750 full-time positions throughout Appalachia.
Bentley found work last week with another mining outfit, but he’ll never forget the looks on the faces of his fellow miners as they watched their economic lives collapse.
“The look on everybody’s faces wasn’t necessarily shock,” Bentley said. “It was just fear. Everybody sitting around thinking, ‘How am I going to provide for my family? Where am I going to find a job?’ ”
Email: Tpugh@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @Tonypughdc