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The unemployed wish campaign spotlight would stay on economy

Chart shows the trend in employment and the current job gap, the jobs lost in the Great Recession and the jobs that would have been created since 2007 in a sound economy; other charts show the monthly change in employment in th private and public sectors.

By Tony Pugh, McClatchy Newspapers –

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.

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.

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.

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?”

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