Wednesday, November 26, 2008

More part-time work is bad sign for U.S.

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By Lucia Mutikani

Seven months after losing a job in construction, Lorenzo Henderson found work earlier this month packing shelves at a supermarket three days a week, joining a trend toward part-time work that is worrying economists.

The 24-year-old father of two from Washington said he had to settle for part-time work after becoming increasingly disillusioned about getting a full-time job anytime soon.

"To be honest, I am not sure my situation will change. If that was the case I would have had a job a long time ago," Henderson told Reuters. "When I got laid off I thought I would get something quickly, but seven months later I am still waiting for a job."

On November 7, the government said the U.S. unemployment rate rose to 6.5 percent in October, the highest rate since March 1994.

But, more worrying for economists, the number of people working part-time for economic reasons jumped 645,000 in October to 6.7 million. That has convinced some economists that the United States is staring at a recession at least as deep as the 1980s contraction.

"No higher figure has been seen since the 1982 recession, when a record 6.86 million people were working part-time for economic reasons," said Tony Crescenzi, chief bond market strategist at Miller Tabak & Co in New York.

"The surge is of course a sign of the times: people are working part-time to make ends meet."

Depending on the number of hours he works, Henderson can take home up to $180 a week for his three days at The Giant Supermarket in Washington's Brentwood neighborhood, compared with $475 a week when he was working at the Washington Nationals baseball stadium.

"I am stressed out about how to pay the bills. I have to worry about food, clothing and shelter. Christmas is coming, the money I am getting from the part-time job is tight," he said.


U.S. employers slashed 240,000 jobs in October after eliminating 284,000 positions in September. Some 1.2 million Americans have lost their jobs since the start of the year.

Among those who lost their job in October is 51-year-old Brad Hall, who used to earn about $1,080 a week laying underground pipes at construction sites in Wilmington, Illinois.

He and his wife now depend on a weekly $300 unemployment check, insufficient for day-to-day needs given the high cost of food, he says.

Analysts reckon the situation will deteriorate further in the months ahead and expect the jobless rate to peak at anywhere between 8 percent and 10 percent.

"We are going to continue to get jobs reports like this for some months because the economy is starting to cycle down," said Peter Morici, a business professor at the University of Maryland.

"We had a collapse in housing construction, now non-residential construction is collapsing, retail sales are declining. We are expecting to lose more jobs in manufacturing and construction. The problem is the banks are not lending money."

A U.S. housing market recession has left banks worldwide with nonperforming assets on their balance sheets, causing the collapse of some financial institutions and leading to a global credit crunch.

The crisis has forced governments to take stakes in some big banks to infuse capital into the financial system and has led central banks to cut interest rates.

But those actions have come too late to avert a global recession, analysts say, and the downturn in the United States is expected to be deep and long.

"Job losses are now piling up. In the first eight months, when the recession was in low gear, average monthly payroll jobs were cut by 108,000," said Brian Fabbri, managing director of economic research at BNP Paribas in New York.

"In the past two months the monthly average payroll job loss has speeded up to 262,000. In comparison, this cycle is beginning to produce more job losses than the last three recessions," he said, referring to downturns in 2001, 1990-1991 and 1981-1982.

LIKE 1982

The U.S. manufacturing sector has been the hardest hit, shedding 90,000 jobs in October.

It was closely followed by the construction sector, where employment fell by 49,000. Construction employment has fallen by 663,000 since peaking in September 2006.

Steep job losses have also been recorded in the retail, financial and service sectors. The only bright spots in October were the health care and mining sectors, which added 26,000 and 7,000 positions, respectively.

"Unfortunately, the current scenario is probably more like 1980-1982, as job losses have likely only begun to occur from recent events," said Miller Tabak's Crescenzi, referring to the seizing up of credit markets in October.

"More is on the way. The last time that there were three months of large declines was in the 1980-1981 and 1981-1982 recessions. Back then, the unemployment rate peaked at 10.8 percent," he said.

History is not on the side of job seekers like Hall and Henderson. An analysis of the U.S. employment cycles since 1948 suggests the length of time the unemployed spend between jobs has grown longer.

While jobs are still available, the bulk tend to be part-time and are poorly paying. For those who can find full-time positions, employers are likely to offer less-attractive packages.

A survey by the Society for Human Resource Management released on November 7 found that the majority of companies in the manufacturing and services sectors were keeping wage and benefits packages flat for new hires.

Henderson, the former construction worker in Washington, has this advice: "If you have the blessing to receive a job right now, the best thing you can do is keep it as long as possible."

Study: Many Kids in Katrina Trailer Park Anemic

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Dozens of infants and toddlers who lived in Louisiana's biggest trailer park for those displaced by Hurricane Katrina were anemic because of poor diets, at a rate more than four times the national average.

About 41 percent of 77 children under the age of 4 suffered from the condition this year, according to a study released Monday by the Children's Health Fund. Most, and possibly all, lived in the Renaissance Village trailer park in Baker.

Iron deficiency anemia can cause fatigue and learning problems. Severe deficiency in young children can delay growth and development and even cause heart murmurs.

The national rate for children that young is below 10 percent. Louisiana has one of the nation's highest anemia rates, with about 24 percent of all children below the age of 5 affected, according to the 2007 Pediatric Nutrition Surveillance survey.

Dr. Irwin Redlener, president of the Children's Health Fund and director of Columbia University's National Center for Disaster Preparedness, said the Renaissance Village rate was double the rate for homeless children the same age in New York City shelters.

The study used records for all 261 babies and children who lived in New Orleans until Katrina and were treated last year at CHF's mobile clinics at the trailer park and Baton Rouge schools, said Roy Grant, the organization's director of applied research and policy analysis.

While most of the affected children were storm evacuees, it was possible that a few were natives of Baton Rouge.

But studying the problem further and providing follow-up care for the children is difficult because the state closed the parks in May.

''Now it's more difficult, because they're no longer in the trailer area. They're dispersed around the state. So it's a little harder to get follow-up,'' said Dr. Jimmy Guidry, Louisiana's health officer.

Can government keep spending? Most economists say yes

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By Jack Chang

Since the U.S. economy went into freefall in September, the federal government has announced hundreds of billions of dollars in bailouts and economic stimulus packages in attempts to shore up banks and reignite the economy.

The latest astronomical figure is an $800 billion package announced Tuesday by the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department. Many are wondering, however, how long this spending can go on. Here are a few answers:

Q: First of all, where does the money come from?

A: The bulk of the cash has been put up by lenders buying U.S. Treasury Department securities such as bonds, notes and short-term bills. Economists estimate that international investors have purchased as much as three-fourths of such securities, with many of them flocking to relatively safe U.S. investments amid global uncertainty.

Some of the spending also has been financed by securities issued by agencies such as Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac.

Q: How much money has the U.S. government spent or loaned out since September?

A: Congress passed in early October a $700 billion bailout plan that gave the Treasury Department sweeping powers to buy distressed assets and keep banks afloat. About half of that money already has been loaned out.

The federal government theoretically will be repaid what it's loaned except for $100 billion in losses incurred from buying some assets above market value.

The government also has injected $45 billion into a large bank, Citigroup, and $150 billion into a large insurer, American International Group.

On Tuesday, the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department announced the latest round of spending, to the tune of $800 billion. One program would lend some $200 billion to holders of securities backed by consumer loans such as credit card loans and auto and student loans. The other program would spend up to $600 billion buying mortgage-backed assets from government-sponsored lenders such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

President-elect Barack Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress also have promised passing a major stimulus plan that could cost $300 billion or more.

Q: How much of that money won't be repaid?

A: So far, as much as $100 billion of the original bailout package used to buy assets at a loss, according to economist Barry Bosworth of the Brookings Institution, a left-of-center research group in Washington. Everything else, at least theoretically, will be repaid or could be recouped.

Q: How much longer can the government keep spending?

A: A lot longer, economists say. International investors will keep buying Treasury securities even though the interest rates on many of them are close to zero percent.

Why? Because the U.S. economy is still considered the world's strongest and most stable, and investors still believe the U.S. will pay back its loans. They know they'll at least get their money back even if they don't make much in interest income.

Ironically, the U.S. has become the haven from the global economic storm, although the financial mess started here. That explains why the dollar has been climbing in value around the world while other currencies have plummeted.

Q: But should the U.S. government be spending so much money?

A: Most economists say yes. Although the federal budget deficit is projected to hit a trillion dollars next year, incurring massive debt at this point is eminently preferable to letting the U.S. economy slide into deep recession.

America can worry about cutting deficit spending when the economy starts growing at a healthy clip, economists said. The goal now is to get banks lending and consumers spending again.

Q: But will all this work?

A: It's better than doing nothing. And letting firms such as Citigroup fail would send wider shock waves through the economy that could cost millions of jobs.

Rape's vast toll in Iraq war remains largely ignored

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By Anna Badkhen

Many rape victims have escaped to Jordan but still don't have access to treatment and counseling.

As though recoiling from her own memories, Khalida shrank deeper into her faded armchair with each sentence she told: of how gunmen apparently working for Iraq's Interior Ministry kidnapped her, beat and raped her; of how they discarded her on a Baghdad sidewalk.

But her suffering did not end when she fled Iraq and became a refugee in Jordan's capital, Amman. When Khalida's husband learned that she had been raped, he abandoned her and their two young sons.

Rumors spread fast in Amman; soon, everyone on her block knew that she was without a man in the house. Last month, her Jordanian neighbor barged into her apartment and attempted to rape her.

Khalida never reported the incident. Like tens of thousands of Iraqi refugees in Jordan, she does not have a permit to live or work here, and she is afraid that if she turns to authorities for help she will get deported. So instead of seeking punishment for her assailant, she latched the flimsy metal door of her apartment and stopped going outside.

Her story sheds light on a problem that is little researched, poorly understood, and largely ignored: Iraqi rape victims who now live in Jordan illegally and without protection. Sexual assault is heavily stigmatized in the Middle East, and victims are often afraid to talk about it to anyone, fearing that their families will abandon them. And their shaky status in Jordan leaves them afraid to seek help and vulnerable to new assaults and abuse. They fear persecution by Jordanian immigration authorities almost as much as they fear returning to Iraq.

"The lack of legal status does lead to these sorts of protection issues [and] puts them in very exploitative situations," says Imran Riza, who heads the mission in Jordan of the United Nations' High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the main international agency that assists Iraqis in Jordan. Women like Khalida, he says, "are certainly vulnerable, and much more vulnerable than others."

Rape is a common weapon of any war; no one knows how many Iraqi women have been raped since the war began in 2003. Most crimes against women "are not reported because of stigma, fear of retaliation, or lack of confidence in the police," MADRE, an international women's rights group, wrote in its 2007 report about violence against women in Iraq. Some women, like Khalida, are raped by Iraqi security forces. A 2005 report published by the Iraqi National Association for Human Rights found that women held in Interior Ministry detention centers endure "systematic rape by the investigators."

A handful of organizations are working to help rape victims in Iraq. MADRE, together with the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq, operates several shelters and safe houses in Baghdad for Iraqi rape victims, where the women have access to healthcare and counseling.

But militias often target women's rights advocates in Iraq, so these facilities are "a clandestine network," operated by "mostly somebody who at a great risk to themselves has opened a room for these victims," says Yifat Susskind, MADRE's communications director. The shelters have helped several thousand Iraqi women since 2003. Most rape victims learn about the shelters from other women.

Documenting sexual assault in Iraq by international researchers remains complicated because of widespread violence. "There's been a security issue, so we haven't been able to get people on the ground to look at the issue for a long time," says Marianne Mollmann, who leads women's rights advocacy at the New York-based Human Rights Watch, which published its last report about rape in Iraq in 2003.

Similarly, no one has tried to estimate how many Iraqi refugees have been raped while in Iraq or in Jordan, says Mohamad Habashneh, a Jordanian psychiatrist who works with Iraqi rape victims.

Mr. Habashneh has treated approximately 40 Iraqi rape victims for clinical depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. But he estimates that they are just a fraction of Iraqi refugees who had been raped.

Psychiatrists like Habashneh charge between $25 and $40 per visit, too expensive for most Iraqi refugees, who, like Khalida, live hand-to-mouth on monthly handouts of about $100 from international agencies.

Many victims are afraid to go outside or travel to a clinic out of fear of being detained by Jordanian authorities.

To help these women, women's rights organizations in Jordan must coordinate with larger agencies, such as UNHCR, to provide care and programs that would help the victims earn money "because rape survivors are alienated from their family and therefore have no way to sustain themselves," Ms. Susskind says.

But so far, these resources are not available for most Iraqi rape victims in Jordan. There are no support groups, no counselors, no hot lines, an no one to soothe Khalida when she has flashbacks that make her relive the day when assailants dressed in police uniforms arrived at the Oil Ministry where she worked and said they were taking her in for questioning.

She did not tell her husband that she had been raped but he figured it out. Now, Khalida does not blame him for going away, or for leaving her so vulnerable to men who wish to prey on her.

"I have his phone number," she says, sobbing quietly. "I dial it sometimes for the kids to talk to their father. Sometimes, because I love him, I like to hear his voice. But when I say 'hello' he hangs up."