Statistics might not lie — but they easily go flat as wallpaper when high unemployment is routine.
On paper or screen, the latest jobless numbers look tidy and self-contained. But in real life, for many individuals and families, the effects of unemployment are messy, sprawling and devastating.
High jobless rates have become normalized, with the most painful effects often hidden in plain sight. Unemployment brings anguish in human terms that statistics don’t convey.
Nationwide, the official unemployment rate is 9.7 percent. For Sonoma County, where job losses have been severe in construction and government, the number is 10 percent — nearly double what it was two years ago.
With unemployment so common that it’s widely seen as a long-term fact of life, a tacit fatalism has seeped into political discourse and the mass media. In short, what should be unacceptable has gained acceptance.
No amount of rhetoric about the dignity of work can make up for the deficit of determination from elected officials to roll back the scourge of unemployment. In recent months, with escalating talk about fiscal austerity, things are moving in the wrong direction.
At the end of May, the Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman challenged the view that policy makers should “stop helping the jobless and start inflicting pain.”
Krugman wrote in his column for the New York Times: “Both textbook economics and experience say that slashing spending when you’re still suffering from high unemployment is a really bad idea — not only does it deepen the slump, but it does little to improve the budget outlook, because much of what governments save by spending less they lose as a weaker economy depresses tax receipts.”
One way of downplaying the long-term unemployment crisis is to scarcely mention it. Even when they decry high jobless levels, many in Congress seem to passively accept the myth that government can do little other than boost the private sector.
In sharp contrast, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created federal jobs programs that became lifelines for millions of Americans. He did not confuse the cruelty of unmitigated market forces with genuine strength. As FDR said, “A nation does not have to be cruel to be tough.”
The latest national employment figures reflect the extent of the problem. Nearly half of jobless Americans have been out of work for at least 27 weeks. More people are now in that predicament than at any other time since the government began measuring such data in 1948.
Now, the unemployed have been out of a job for a whopping average of 34.4 weeks — a new record.
And official figures don’t measure the full crisis. For instance, those who’ve stopped looking for a job do not factor into the standard unemployment stats.
The current jobless numbers would be worse if not for the fact that 411,000 workers are now temporarily helping with the federal Census.
With infrastructures crumbling across the country, why should those workers have to join the ranks of the unemployed by the end of this summer? Why not launch a genuine public employment program?
Answers to such questions hinge on perceptions of the chronic jobless crisis. When people view high unemployment as virtually inevitable for years to come, the expectation is largely self-fulfilling.
Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich pointed out recently that “the labor market continues to deteriorate.” As he noted, “the Great Recession was caused by the bursting of a huge housing bubble. And that can’t be reversed without a major restructuring of the economy because housing prices won’t be back to where they were — and won’t be rising above that peak — for years.”
The new normal of high unemployment should not be allowed to melt into the national wallpaper.
Norman Solomon is national co-chair of the Healthcare Not Warfare campaign, launched byProgressive Democrats of America. His books include “War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death.” For more information, go to: www.normansolomon.com
Republished with the author's permission from the Sonoma Press Democrat.