One morning earlier this month, Gary Voigt drove into a packed parking lot just off a suburban road. Inside a low brick building he found hundreds of people - all job seekers like himself - standing in long lines to deposit their résumés with a handful of employers.
A gregarious 52-year old with a goatee, Mr. Voigt had a story to tell. For 30 years, he had worked in the warehouse of an automotive fuse manufacturer, moving steel coils and other components to the factory floor.
He was bitter about losing his job - in a familiar tale, his company moved its plant overseas - but more than anything, he was frustrated by his inability to find work. In nearly two years of looking, the closest he'd come was a brief part-time gig at Hertz and a good lead from a temp agency, which promptly evaporated.
"It's very bad out there," Mr. Voigt says. "They say the economy is coming around, but I don't see it." He gestured at the crowds lingering in the gloomy auditorium. "If it were, all the people in this room would have jobs."
To hear economists talk, the Great Recession, which hurtled across the U.S. like a hurricane starting at the end of 2007, has passed. But on a human level, it often doesn't feel that way. Jobs are scarce and unemployment - at 9.9 per cent - remains startlingly high after the massive layoffs of the past two years.
On a trip to Buffalo last week, President Barack Obama acknowledged the disparity between the "fancy formulas" employed by economists and the lived experience of ordinary people. "If you're still looking for a job, it's still a recession," he said. "If you can't pay your bills or your mortgage, it's still a recession. No matter what the economists say, it's not a real recovery until people can feel it in their own lives."
Although the U.S. economy is growing again, its progress suddenly seems more uncertain. Stocks entered a steep slide this week on worries over the debt crisis in Europe and the vigour of the global recovery.
As market commentators fret about the fate of the euro and the path of the Chinese economy, another vulnerability is on display at job fairs like the one Mr. Voigt visited. U.S. consumers have powered global economic demand for years, but now struggle with high levels of joblessness that aren't likely to abate any time soon. If U.S. consumers cut back on spending, the outlook for the global recovery darkens.
In a nod to the difficulties faced by average Americans, the retail giant Wal-Mart Stores Inc. warned on Tuesday that its U.S. sales would remain sluggish because its core working-class clientele is under pressure. The company's customers "are still concerned about their personal finances and unemployment," said chief executive officer Mike Duke.
Americans live in two different worlds. Those who have a job feel a little more secure now that the economy is out of its tailspin; those who don't still face a long struggle for gainful employment.
The distance between those two worlds can be traversed in the time it takes to travel from bustling downtown Chicago to the outskirts of Rockford, a 150-kilometre drive. Once a proud manufacturing hub, Rockford's jobless rate now stands at 17.9 per cent, according to the latest statistics. That's the highest rate among the nation's cities outside California and Arizona, higher even than in places like Detroit or Flint, Mich.
Ask anyone at the job fair here about the state of the U.S. economy and you'll get an earful. "This is not a nice word for it, but - it sucks," says Jane, a 60-year old Rockford native who asks that her last name not be used. She transferred back home last summer as part of a company restructuring only to get laid off three months later.
She fears her age is a liability and wonders darkly about the future. "We cannot be a country of stockbrokers and hamburger flippers," she says. "There has to be a middle ground."
A few steps way stands Kathy Oakes, a skinny 47-year-old in black jeans and a sweater. A single mother who lost her job at a nearby Chrysler plant, she sounds more discouraged than angry. "It's horrible," she says. "I have looked and looked and looked."
In theory, she is one of the lucky ones. She has a part-time job as a switchboard operator at a local hospital, but it doesn't cover her expenses, which include house payments, health insurance, car insurance, and insulin to control her diabetes.
Asked how she's making ends meet, she turns away. "I am not," she says, tears pooling in her eyes. "I am not." She fears she will lose her house, where she has lived since 1998.
Stories like Ms. Oakes' explain why "statisticians are a lot happier about the recovery than ordinary people are," says Mark Vitner, an economist at Wells Fargo & Co. in Charlotte, N.C.
Employment is what economists call a "lagging indicator," meaning it tends to follow, rather than lead, broader trends in the economy. Right now its progress appears even more halting than usual.
While the U.S. economy began growing last year, the first really solid sign that it was creating new jobs only came with payroll data for the month of March. In April, payrolls expanded by an encouraging 290,000 workers.
That's indisputably good news, but it does little to repair the immense damage wrought over the past two years. Indeed, the blows suffered by the labour market may turn out to be the defining characteristic of this downturn: The unemployment rate shot up faster, and by a greater proportion, than in any recession since the Great Depression.
"We just have this massive crater" in the job market, says Heidi Shierholz, a labour economist at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington. It would take another five years of monthly payroll gains like those seen in April to return employment to its pre-recession state, she estimates.
The length of time that people are finding themselves unemployed is especially disturbing - a sign that people are getting stuck once they lose their jobs. The proportion of Americans out of work for more than six months is at a postwar high: 46 per cent of those unemployed, or 6.7 million.
"We haven't seen long-term unemployment at this scale here in the U.S. going back 70 years," says Gary Burtless, a labour economist at the Brookings Institution. "There's no way to put lipstick on this particular pig - this is bad."
Particularly hard hit are the sectors most associated with the boom times that preceded the Great Recession. The unemployment rate in the construction sector hovers around 25 per cent as home building has collapsed. In financial services, joblessness has doubled over the past two years to 7.6 per cent.
The overall unemployment rate may actually increase this year. As the economy starts creating jobs, those who have been too discouraged to look for work return to seeking employment and are again counted in labour force statistics. Right now that influx is happening faster than the economy is generating jobs, which explains why the unemployment rate rose last month even as payrolls expanded.
What lies ahead, economists fear, are years of elevated unemployment. The jobless rate that prevailed right before the recession - a slender 4.7 per cent - now seems like a dream well out of reach. Mr. Vitner of Wells Fargo doubts a return to such levels is possible any time this decade. "Lots of people need to be retrained for something but don't know what," he says. "The longer they're out of work, the harder it is to place them."
No Job Fairy
In Rockford, such statistics have lives and faces. Founded in 1834 on the banks of the Rock River, the city was an industrial powerhouse, producing machine tools, airplane parts and automobiles. The multitude of fasteners and bolts it made earned the city an unusual nickname - "screw capital of the world."
The long erosion of its prosperity - it once had three types of rail service and elegant theatres - began after the Second World War and accelerated during the recession of the early 1980s. While things improved somewhat in the intervening decades, the city never lost its reliance on manufacturing, leaving it vulnerable to the migration of jobs overseas.
By the time the current economic cataclysm arrived, the city had few defences. This January, Rockford registered the highest year-over-year increase in unemployment of any metropolitan area in the U.S. - up 5.8 percentage points to 19.7 per cent.
Larry Morrissey, Rockford's energetic 40-year-old mayor, says going to places like Washington can be a surreal experience. "You don't see any downturn in the Starbucks across from the Capitol," he says.
He's sitting in Katie's Cup, a coffee shop on Seventh Street, formerly a bustling commercial corridor where these days more storefronts are shuttered than open. Across the street is a tall building with an eagle blazoned on one façade. It's the headquarters of Amcore Bank, a hundred-year-old local institution. A couple of weeks earlier, it was seized by federal banking regulators and sold off to Harris Bank, which is owned by Bank of Montreal.
Mr. Morrissey sounds weary when talking about efforts to save the bank. He met with Harris Bank's CEO and talked about ways the firm can help the community, but says jobs will be lost in the process.
"We can't sit around and feel sorry for ourselves," he says. "There's no job fairy out there."
Mr. Morrissey himself is a whirl of motion: lobbying the state government for funds to build a high-speed rail link to Chicago's O'Hare airport, travelling to China to solicit investment in a solar panel plant, leading a monthly statistical review of municipal services. The results won't be immediate, but he hopes to lay the groundwork for lasting change.
He talks about the need for the city to return to its roots, as epitomized by hard-working, inventive newcomers from Sweden, Ireland and Italy. "The truth is that immigrants are much more entrepreneurial," he says. "They know the answer is to work your ass off."
In the meantime, he is fighting some epic battles. With a high-school graduation rate of less than 50 per cent, Rockford's public education system appears badly broken. The city is running a large deficit. Crime is a major issue: Two days before we meet, a couple are murdered in what seems to be a targeted killing.
Across the river on Rockford's hardscrabble west side, the Rock River Valley Pantry, which provides free food supplies to people in need, is doing a brisk business. The number of people it serves has soared by 44 per cent in the past two years.
Kim Adams-Bakke, the pantry's executive director, longs for the day when she'll be able to say that demand is slackening. "If our numbers are going down, it means that people are back to work, the economy is stabilizing and people aren't going hungry," she says.
Back at the job fair, Mr. Voigt says he's happy to get out of the house but depressed by what's available. He manages to submit his résumé to one of the 12 employers present, but it's looking for agents to peddle financial products and insurance. "It just isn't me," he says. "I don't think I could sell stuff like that to people."
He's hoping for a response from a party-rental company seeking a driver or a local firm that advertised a warehouse position. He and his wife worked at the same auto parts company, which means they're both out of work. His unemployment benefits run out later this fall.
"If I don't have anything by then, I'm really screwed," he says. "I keep looking. I just don't know what the heck I'm supposed to do."