An unemployed West Virginia steelworker, laid off 14 months ago, told the Joint Senate-House Economic Committee yesterday that things finally got so bad for him and his family that "I took a gun to my head and pulled the trigger."
Albert Bragg, his voice quavering and his speech punctuated by sobs, told the stunned panel how, driven by fear and frustration over an endless job hunt, he had tried to kill himself last summer. "I guess I moved my head," Bragg said, explaining how he survived. "I was just scared."
Bragg's revelation provided the most dramatic moment on a morning when the usually routine announcement of the unemployment rate was turned into a spectacle as the rate shot to 10.1 percent -- the highest since 1940. Compared to the usual committee sessions, according to one Senate aide, "yesterday's was a circus."
The ornate hearing room was packed with spectators. It was adorned, thanks to the Democrats, with side-by-side posters of President Reagan asserting "Recovery has been sighted," and Herbert Hoover promising, "Prosperity is just around the corner." A phalanx of reporters and television cameras was there to record every sound uttered by the 10 Democrats who had swarmed to the hearing to denounce President Reagan's policies and the lone Republican who came to defend them.
But as the hearing moved past official pronouncements, the grim statistics took on a human dimension when Bragg and the others began, sometimes timidly, sometimes eloquently, to testify.
The 33-year-old Bragg, who comes from the rolling hills of New Cumberland, W.Va., told of losing his job at a Pennsylvania steel mill on July 25, 1981. He'd worked there since 1977 as a saw operator, a job he felt was a way "to better myself." Bragg ran down a long list of local companies where he'd tried unsuccessfully to find work.
After the hearing, he said his suicide attempt had come about 10 or 15 weeks ago when "I couldn't take the pressure anymore." He said the high-powered hunting rifle he used "went off, but I must have moved my head. It's like when I shoot at a deer, and I miss."
Earlier, he had told the panel that his little girl had written a letter to President Reagan saying, "My dad took a gun to his head. . . . " Although Bragg said he stopped her from mailing it, he asked why she had written it. "She told me, 'Dad, ever since that man's been in office, you haven't worked.' "
Bragg was flanked at the witness table by a Baltimore schoolteacher, Michigan and Maryland auto workers, a West Virginia coal miner and a Maryland shipbuilder -- all of whom had been laid off from work.
Ida Hines, a schoolteacher and the sole breadwinner in her family of five, said she'd worked her way up in the Baltimore school system to become "a degree person," a social science teacher. But she said, "When you're out of a job you are looked on as being shiftless no matter how much education you have. You feel less than a person when you're unemployed. People look at you as less than a person. . . . "
Donald Booth was laid off 18 months ago from his job at a Bethlehem Steel shipyard in Baltimore, where a work force of 3,000 has dwindled to a few hundred since last year. He has been called back sporadically for a few days at a time. "But when I am . . . I don't know how I can pay to get there."
After hearing the testimony, Sen. Roger Jepsen (R-Iowa) expressed concern for the witnesses' plight but defended the administration's policies, saying, "Unemployment couldn't come down until inflation and interest rates came down. The president has brought them down the only way he could . . . by reversing the policies of the past" Democratic administration and Democratic-controlled congresses.
To that, Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D-Md.) responded, "It's difficult to discuss the big picture when people are unemployed. To people who are unemployed, that is the big picture." He and his fellow Democrats kept repeating the message that the administration had failed.
Schoolteacher Hines had a message for Reagan, too: "I want to tell the president, you can't keep taking away and cutting away at humans and keep saying, 'Everything is going to be better.' It's not going to be better," Hines warned. "It's going to get worse."