Reminder: Mass Unemployment is Terrible

This line from David Brooks’ most recent column has stuck with me since I read it: “Right now, America faces two giant problems: social unraveling today and cataclysmic debt tomorrow.” Reasonable people can disagree about the long-term problem of debt, but it’s hard to argue that we haven’t seen some form of “social unraveling” over the last decade. As Brooks notes:

We’re living in a country where 53 percent of children born to women under 30 are born out of wedlock, according to government data. Millions of people, especially men, are dropping out of the labor force. Nearly half the students who begin college are unable to graduate within six years. The social fabric for people without college degrees is in shambles

What’s frustrating about this diagnosis is that, like most elite discussion, it ignores the huge elephant looming over all areas of American life—mass unemployment. If you lived on a diet of Beltway pundits, you’d have no idea that we’re facing an crisis of joblessness, with terrible implications for our long-term economic health, to say nothing of those immediately affected. Here’s The Atlantic’s Matthew O’Brien with more:

As long as you’ve been out of work for less than six months, you can get called back even if you don’t have experience. But after you’ve been out of work for six months, it doesn’t matter what experience you have. Quite literally. There’s only a 2.12 percentage point difference in callback rates for the long-term unemployed with or without industry experience. That’s compared to a 7.13 and 8.95 percentage point difference for the short-and-medium-term unemployed. This is what screening out the long-term unemployed looks like. In other words, the first thing employers look at is how long you’ve been out of work, and that’s the only thing they look at if it’s been six months or longer.

In a tight labor market, this is a manageable problem—the vast majority of people who want jobs will have them, with relatively few people in this situation. But we’re still dealing with the effects of the Great Recession; 11.7 million people are unemployed, and nearly 40 percent—4.6 million—have lacked work for more than six months. And increasingly, they’re unemployable. Not only does this bode poorly for families and communities, who have to deal with the many negative effects of joblessness, but it’s a huge drag on the national economy. With long-term mass unemployment, the United States faces lost productivity, worse outcomes on a variety of social indicators, and even greater spending on efforts to deal with the consequences of both.

If your chief concern is “social unraveling” (and for that matter, debt), then your chief focus should be on ameliorating mass unemployment. But, for reasons that continue to escape me, this isn’t a priority for much of Washington.