BELLEVILLE — No one needs to tell Bill Hagene, 59, that unemployment in St. Clair County runs north of 10 percent. The Army veteran has lived it every day since he was laid off from his security guard's job 18 months ago.
Hagene, of Caseyville, tries to stay positive as he hunts for a job after months of rejections.
"You just ... figure one of these days you're going to get lucky," he said. "That's all there is to it."
Darrell Burnett, 41, of East St. Louis, lost his job at a Madison County warehouse three months ago. As he tracks down job leads, the Gulf War veteran said he's been reminded over and over of a basic weakness in the job market.
"The people that want to work, they should get the opportunity by getting more training and stuff," Burnett said. The state "should work with them and give (employers) job incentives to hire them."
Hagene and Burnett put a face on the entwined issues of unemployment and a sluggish economy -- issues that have dominated politics on national and local levels leading up to the Nov. 6 election.
In the race for Congress in Illinois' 12th District, candidates Jason Plummer, R-Fairview Heights, Bill Enyart, D-Belleville, and Paula Bradshaw of Carbondale, running on the Green Party ticket, know the importance of jobs and the economy. Each has offered a wide range of ideas for improving the employment picture in Southern Illinois.
Democrats cheered earlier this month when the federal government reported the nationwide jobless rate fell to 7.8 percent in September -- the lowest level in nearly four years.
But Republicans said the jobless rate fell because so many people have simply quit looking.
"That can be so deceptive," he said. "A lot of that is because a lot of people have quit looking for work."
The picture is not as bright in Illinois, where the jobless rate climbed to 9.1 percent in August from 8.9 percent in July. St. Clair County -- the most populous county in the 12th U.S. House District, with nearly half its voters -- had an unemployment rate of 10.6 percent in August.
The district runs from Alton south to Cairo and comprises a dozen counties. Socially conservative, it is full of blue-collar workers, a key reason why Democrats have controlled the seat for 68 years.
Plummer is a real estate developer and vice president of his family's business, R.P. Lumber. He spent the past year highlighting the 12th District's chronically high employment, to the point that he has based his campaign on two pillars: job creation and "providing opportunity for the people of Southern Illinois."
"The underlying theme of my jobs plan is that we must reduce the size and scope of the federal government," Plummer said. "Our district is blessed with a tremendous workforce, an abundance of agricultural resources, access to river, road and rail transportation networks, as well as coal, oil and natural gas reserves. However, bad public policy has crippled many of the industries that the district's workers depend on."
Plummer's campaign is predicated on a 12-point jobs program that calls for a wide range of economic reforms, from rolling back burdensome government regulations to axing needless bureaucracies.
Plummer also proposes imposing new limits on the Environmental Protection Agency's ability to enforce the Clean Air Act, which Plummer blames for job losses in Illinois' once-vibrant coal industry.
Other points call for repeal of the Affordable Care Act, fixing the aging Mississippi River levees, eliminating tax loopholes and passing a Farm Bill that truly benefits farmers.
Plummer said that anyone seeking a job should be able to find one in the 12th District.
"The fact of the matter is I don't care what your history is and what your circumstances are, if you want to work and you want a good job, we live in a country, we live in state where that job should exist," he said.
"And right now, for far too many people, that opportunity doesn't exist. And that is a tragedy."
Enyart proposes a strategy that includes encouraging small businesses to hire the unemployed.
Paying for these incentives would come from the elimination of the tax credits and loopholes that have enabled giant corporations, such as General Electric, to pare their annual federal tax bills to zero.
"One of the things I think we need to do is provide a tax credit to small businesses that hire the long-term unemployed," said Enyart, a Belleville attorney and retired commander of the Illinois National Guard.
"The way the tax code is structured now, we wind up giving these huge tax breaks to these large companies, but they don't trickle down to the small companies, the moms and the pops."
Asked about how he would go up against the large corporations' lobbyists and lawyers, Enyart said: "That's a great question. I think that's why I should be elected, because I'm willing to take that battle on."
Enyart also is calling on the federal government to invest in "hard" infrastructure, such as roads and bridges, and "soft" infrastructure, such as better schools and technical training, especially for older workers who are seeking to upgrade their skills or make career changes after being losing their jobs.
Enyart describes himself as an optimist about the 12th District's economic prospects.
"The economy is always changing," he said. "We went through this with the steel industry, and jobs left the steel industry. But today the steel industry is coming back in Granite City. You want that, you want that creative change."
For Paula Bradshaw, the road to job creation in the 12th District runs through what she describes as a "Green New Deal," a plan modeled on Franklin Roosevelt's strategy for addressing the Great Depression of the 1930s through massive public works programs aimed at putting as many idle people to work as possible.
"It doesn't matter what you're doing. You can be out planting trees" or working on flood levees or rebuilding wetlands, Bradshaw said. "There are things that unskilled people can do. We should be putting people to work just like Roosevelt did. ... There's plenty of work that needs to be done."
Bradshaw, a Carbondale hospital emergency room nurse, proposed a set of goals that include raising the federal minimum wage to $12 per hour from the current $7.25. She'd like to see at least 20 million Americans put to work through her plan.
"We have a lot of stuff that needs to be done that isn't being done," Bradshaw said. "We have things that need to be done and people need to be put to work doing them."
No easy fix
Experts who have analyzed unemployment in Illinois point to a battery of challenges that make job creation difficult.
Ben VanMetre, a budget and tax analyst at the Illinois Policy Institute, a conservative think tank in Chicago, blamed the state's stubbornly high unemployment rate on a poor business climate.
"An increasingly unstable tax environment and growing regulatory burdens are sapping business creation and job growth," VanMetre said. "Illinois punished entrepreneurial activity with a 46 percent tax increase on businesses in 2011.
"The state turned around and gave the new tax revenue to pensions and select companies it thought deserved the money," he said. "If lawmakers in Illinois want to knock the unemployment rate off its upward trend, they must create a more stable environment where businesses are able to hire new employees, make investments and take risks."
Charyl Carleton, an economics professor at Villanova University, near Philadelphia, blamed high unemployment across the nation on uncertainty on the part of the private sector.
"It is costly for firms to hire and train workers, and they are only willing to do so if they believe it will be worthwhile and they can count on needing them for a while," she stated in an email.
"All of the uncertainty caused by the lack of action in Congress," she said. "Taxes, stimulus spending, Social Security payments, etc., causes firms to not expand and hire because they don't know what will happen."
She said that older workers are retiring later, choosing to hang on to their health care benefits, making it harder for younger workers to enter the labor force.
She also said that state and local governments have been cutting back their budgets and letting workers go, which adds to the unemployment numbers.
As Hagene continues to look for work, he said the Obama administration inherited financial problems -- the Wall Street meltdown, the housing market crash and the bankruptcies that threatened U.S. automakers -- that would have taken either party a long time to dig out from.
As for his job prospects, Hagene said he's trying to keep everything in perspective.
"I don't think there is a real fix to the job situation right now," he said. "As ornery and nasty as it sounds, you're just going to have to wait a while."