The unemployment rate is a decent measure of where the economy stands, but it doesn’t provide a full picture of joblessness—it only measures the employment status of people looking for a job. For a broader sense of unemployment—and its affect on everyday life—you have to dig deeper. A recent study from Rutgers University, for example, provides a sobering look at the broad impact of persistent joblessness.
In “Diminished Lives and Futures: A Portrait of America in the Great-Recession Era,” researchers Mark Szeltner, Carl Van Horn, and Cliff Zukin find that “nearly one-quarter (23%) of all survey respondents report being laid off from either a full-time or part-time job.” There’s a stark racial divide, 31 percent of blacks and Hispanics report losing a job, versus 22 percent of whites, and a large gender gap—27 percent of men have lost employment since the recession began, versus 19 percent of women.
What’s staggering is the number of people who have been touched by joblessness. Seventy-nine percent of Americans know someone who has lost a job in the past four years. Among those who responded, 26 percent know a member of their immediate household who has lost a job, 58 percent know a member of their extended family, 58 percent know a close personal friend, and 34 percent know a close friend of someone in their immediate household. Overall, according to the authors, “one-third of American households – approximately 39 million – lost work as a result of the recession during the past four years.” And joblessness remains the overriding concern of most Americans.
Naturally, this makes it a low priority in Congress. And for Byron York at the Washington Examiner, that’s absolutely maddening:
In his inaugural address, President Obama did not even mention the problem of joblessness, and both Obama and Republicans in Congress are more caught up in fighting over fiscal issues than confronting unemployment. And when they’re not fighting over the budget, they’re arguing over gun control.
York devotes a little space to bemoaning the bipartisan push for immigration reform—and ignoring the major enforcement gains of the last four years—but that doesn’t diminish his main point, which is to (correctly) note Washington’s indifference to the crisis of mass unemployment.
Instead, our political elites are hyper-concerned with debt and deficits, as if our high debt is responsible for slow growth and joblessness. Of course, the opposite is true: Debt reduction requires growth. The further away we are from full employment, the harder it is to stabilize our debt load.
It’s not hard to see the vicious cycle this creates. High unemployment leads to high debt, which leads deficit hawks to call for spending cuts, which leads to higher unemployment and higher debt. So far, we’ve been able to avoid this spiral, but if the sequester goes through, we might join the United Kingdom and other European countries in facing this disaster.
Best case scenario, we avoid austerity and maintain the slow recovery of the last two years. And in the absence of new stimulus, we all but set ourselves up for a lost decade of sluggish growth and high joblessness. Our elites might find this acceptable, but for ordinary people, it’s terrible news.