The New Normal: High Unemployment

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

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:

Republished with the author’s permission from the Sonoma Press Democrat.


  1. says

    Well how about this. Progressives and liberal democrats start a no-holds-barred “class war” against corporate America using the government, we still outnumber the rich, to establish: (A) A 30 hour week as the government recognized work week in the US. The new 30 hour week would receive the same pay rate for any position at the 40 hour level, effectively a 33% pay raise. Any work over 30 hours would have to be paid at the rate of double time the new rate for the job. The new labor laws would mandate an annual vacation for all workers of 20 days paid, no exceptions. (B) No more jobs could be moved outside of the US. Any company moving their operations outside the US border could not sell any products in the US and all levels of government in the US would be prohibited from buying from these companies. All business, including foreign commerce, would be taxed by the US. (C) Pass the legislation and establish a single payer health system for the US that covers all medical costs: medical and hospital, dental, optical, etc. (D) Tax all employers at a much steeper rate to input into Social Security and the new medical program. Move the FICA tax rate on employees to 9% from the current rate of near 7%. The new medical program would also require an employee levy at the rate of medicare. (E) Pass the Employee Free Choice Act so that unions could rebuild a base of well paid workers who can act as a force for social change for a better society. (F) Tax all income (bond interest, share dividends, profits, etc), not just wages, as taxable wages. Develop a wealth tax on individuals earning more than $100,000 per year or families earning more than $200,000 that is steeply progressive, 30% on the first $100,000 over the minimums and then 50% on the next $100,000 until 90% is collected on the amounts $500,000 over the minimum and then 90% of all else. These revenues would well provide the monies needed for a better society.

    And of course, bring the predatory wars to a halt that are being waged to benefit the military-industrial-financial-energy complex. The US would just have to buy the resources needed on the hallowed “market”.

    Of course these measures would just be a good start, but they would provide jobs, income, and benefits to make life livable for working people. The wealthy would still live higher on the hog, but they would contribute a lot more.

  2. says

    Norman has barely opened what is really taking place, namely a global class war being waged by the corporations and their political prostitutes(put in any name that fits). In 2006, a book was published entitled “The Disposable American” which described the outsourcing of 30 million American jobs to… He called the resulting response of Americans acquiescence, and Norman calls it fatalism. Same disease. Now here is the really scary news. Those of you who think your job is safe, forget it. If it can be sent through the internet, you can kiss your job goodbye. Dr. Alan Blinder, former Fed vice chair, has predicted that 20-40 million jobs will leave this country during the next generation. Is it time to start a left wing Labor Party in this country? You betcha.

  3. says

    Excellent piece, Nr. Solomon. You’ve pointed out something that has gone largely unmentioned: the longer that we have high unemployment, the more that unacceptable condition is “accepted” as in some perverse way “normal” — in the national consciousness, the national debate, and ultimately the conventional wisdom (God save us from all the injustices perpetuated by the latter).

    If we continue down this road, we will end up with something of a caste system, in which the record inequality we have in recent years endured will more permanently hinder the American ideal of social mobility, with the increasing and increasingly unbearable costs of education and job retraining being perhaps the most significant obstacles for many to surmount.

    We cannot afford to tolerate social injustice, including devastatingly high levels of unemployment — ultimately impoverishing not only the workers no longer working but also, for want of their productive labors, our nation as a whole.

  4. says

    In 1962-63, when I was following these issues because I was producing union-busting propaganda, the Wall Street Journal published a piece arguing that the unemployment rate was too low and was strengthening the union position in negotiations. If I recall correctly, the author considered a rate of at least 7% necessary for what he described as free market labor supply conditions.

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