Why Don’t We Raise More Hell About Unemployment?

By Imara Jones Jun 11, 2014

We’re halfway through 2014 which means that it’s a good time to ask "Just where are we on jobs?" Sparking the conversation is the fact that last Friday the Department of Labor released its sixth jobs report of the year.
The jobs number is the most important piece of economic data for the overwhelming majority of Americans, especially people of color who rely more on work than on wealth to make ends meet.

Though at first glance the news appears to be generally positive, the reality is that the numbers reveal a jobs machine in shambles. Despite 51 months of job gains, the economy is short 20 to 30 million jobs of where the country needs to be in order to make a difference in the lives of most. When multiplied by the number of family members who depend on household breadwinners, this means that there are as many as one out of three Americans who are losing ground because of the pitiful state of the labor market.

But this crisis seems to be missing something that its scale would indicate is needed: a sense of national urgency about the dire state of unemployment. Although headlines continue to be dominated by Bowe Bergdahl, Bridgegate, Benghazi and Beyoncé, what’s key is the fact that half of all Americans are on the precipice of economic calamity because of a lack of national attention to jobs.

Out of the 10 million Americans officially unemployed, more than one out of three have been so for six months or more. An additional 7 million people are in part-time jobs who want full-time ones. Another 2 million people are "marginally attached" to the labor market meaning that they want work but search for it sporadically, many due to the difficulty of actually finding work.

But the whopper is that up to 8 million others who want a job have stopped their search altogether and disappeared from the workforce.

Tally these numbers up and we’re close to 30 million people who remain flat on their backs six years after the economic meltdown began.

However, headlines in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and The Financial Times 
put forth a different interpretation. They trumpeted the fact that labor market has regained, numerically speaking, all of the nearly 9 million jobs lost in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown. CNNMoney proclaimed, "Finally! Job Market Returns to 2008 Peak." However, as Maya Angelou often said, "You can tell a fact but not the truth."

If you include the new entrants into the jobs market during that time–specifically young people graduating from high school and institutions of higher learning–we’re still short 8 million jobs. The bottom line is that despite more than four years of official economic "recovery," the employment market has gained almost no new ground.

One of the reasons for an overall lack of alarm in the media might be that the jobs crisis is no longer considered news. Rather than a spectacular event, it’s now become the prolonged de facto grind that our culture now accepts. Additional facts from last week’s jobs report points to why.

As has been the case for years now, black, young adult and teenage joblessness is up to three times higher than the overall unemployment rate. Fortunately, the unemployment rate for Latinos has fallen from double to single digits, but it’s still 50 percent higher than that of whites. And half of all young black men in urban areas across the country are without work.

Because of the duration of this same-as-it-ever-was scenario for groups key to America’s economic future perhaps the harsh reality has been baked into public consciousness. This conventional wisdom may be so ingrained that it can be ignored by large portions of the press and toned down into a more easily digestible scenario.

The interesting thing is that average people may not be completely buying the rosier outlook.

In most Gallup surveys since 2008, Americans have ranked "jobs and/or the economy" as the number one issue. And yet public opinion hasn’t translated into public action. Besides the stimulus bill of 2009, Washington has taken no substantial steps on jobs and the national conversation has moved on to the latest conflagration, either manufactured or real.

Cable news networks have focused more on whether aliens kidnapped Malaysia Flight 370 rather than the actual jobs crisis. The disappointing irony is that this coverage choice has been a ratings bonanza. It may not matter what we’re actually experiencing day to day. Somehow we might rather hear a fanciful story about a distant, missing aircraft instead of plugging into what’s going on right in front of us.

I put the question about this fundamental disassociation to Jared Bernstein, Vice President Biden’s former chief economic advisor and now a Senior Fellow at the Center on Budget Policy Priorities. Berstein battled inside the Obama administration for a more aggressive jobs push and has organized a recent project to focus on full employment. He’s also a frequent guest on financial news networks.

"The toxic combination of increasing wealth concentration and evermore money in politics means less representation for those on the short side of the inequality divide," he said. "One way you see this played out is when trickle-down tax cuts targeted at the wealthy are sold as a way to create jobs. There’s no empirical evidence to support that specious connection, and yet we still hear it all the time."

But here we have the problem presented again. There’s a gap between what’s being said about jobs and what’s actually true about the jobs crisis.

Employment guru Heidi Shierholz of the Economic Policy Institute put it even more bluntly.
She argues that there is "a huge disconnect between the scale of the problem out there and what Washington is doing. Policymakers have done things to make conditions worse. Washington got obsessed with budget hysteria which is absolutely the wrong thing when what we need is stimulus. That’s what’s required." Shierholz is right.

That’s why President Obama and former President Bill Clinton have jobs plans that seeks to ignite demand and create jobs. The conservative American Enterprise Institute and progressive-leaning Bernstein have some job ideas that overlap. In fact there’s no shortage of jobs proposals. But they’re not going anywhere. As Shierholz says, "Decisions are being made on something other than economics." Still the question remains of why there’s a lack of public outcry about the stagnation?

Perhaps the fact that crisis has gone for six years now may be part of the answer. As students in Psychology 101 are often taught, humans, like frogs, will immediately leap out of boiling water but if the temperature is turned up gradually frogs will remain in the water even to their detriment.

Whatever the reason, time is not on our side. A generation of young Americans is at risk of being lost to an economy that’s not working for them. This will have a myriad of unforeseen circumstances.

Let’s hope that we learn to leap before its too late.