By Jim Langcuster, Alabama Cooperative Extension System


A lot of what I do as a member of Alabama Extension's marketing team is to think out loud, usually after digesting an article or op-ed about a topic that raises major implications for the Cooperative Extension mission.


The New York Times's David Brooks's most recent op-ed is one example — a piece appropriately named "The Lean Years."


Writing about this severe recession, he paints an especially gloomy picture of the years of hard slogging that lie ahead for millions of Americans, particularly men and young people, before some semblance of normality returns.


He cites an essay in The Atlantic, which reports that almost a fifth of all U.S. men between 25 and 54 are without jobs — the highest such figure since the labor bureau began collecting and reporting these numbers in 1948.


America's young people are also being disproportionally affected by this downturn. Brooks cites a gloomy statistic from a previous severe recession: College grads who entered the job market in 1981 earned 25 percent less than those who entered in more prosperous periods. And this earnings gap persists for decades. Over their lifetimes, recession kids will earn approximately $100,000 less than those hired during more auspicious periods.


Brooks fears that these trends will exact a heavy social cost among men and young people alike.


Among chronically unemployed men, this effect is often reflected by enhanced levels of alcoholism and child abuse, with millions of unemployed men sustaining what Brooks describes as "debilitating blows to their identity."


Young people are also psychologically altered, less likely to switch jobs later in their career, even when greater opportunity beckons.


The burgeoning federal deficits will only contribute to further fraying. Deficits will command roughly 11 percent of the country’s entire economic input this year, leaving little room for expanded domestic initiatives.


As Brooks observes, the social fabric, which has served throughout U.S. history to mitigate the effects of hard times, has begun to fray.  


These hard realties present Cooperative Extension educators with a challenge.


As one long-tenured Extension county coordinator related to me several months ago, Cooperative Extension has served a useful role within the last century providing people, often people on the margins of society, with basic skills to cope in difficult times. The coming lean years, which will be characterized by both chronic unemployment and underemployment as well as fewer federal domestic initiatives, present Americans with a unique set of challenges  — challenges that Cooperative Extension System is especially well-equipped to meet.


Working through its 4-H youth empowerment, home gardening, nutrition and community develop programs, Cooperative Extension educators are poised to build and new and enduring legacy of self-empowerment. How? By providing the most hard-pressed among us with the vital coping skills they require to endure the next few years. By empowering them, we also lend a hand in helping restore this nation's vital, but frayed, social fabric.