Friday, February 12, 2010

Counting The Cost Of Unemployment

Wow. If you're up for a really sobering contemplation of how high unemployment levels are going to reshape the country in the years ahead, look no further than Don Peck's article in The Atlantic. Before the Great Recession, 5 percent unemployment was normal. We're now at about 10 percent unemployment. And according to Peck and those he interviews, over the next several years the numbers may only improve slightly, so that even when "recovery" is complete, the new normal may be 8 or 9 percent.

The point of Peck's article is to look at the steep social and cultural costs of high unemployment, which include higher divorce rates and more single parent homes, more depression and mental illness, increased domestic violence, and more drug and alcohol abuse, to name a few. The article glances at enough facets of the issue that it really could be expanded into a graduate level course. He focuses particularly on the psychological effect that joblessness has on men and the ripple effects that sends through families, neighborhoods, and communities. (It's especially pertinent because the current recession is throwing more men out of work than women, as part of the general shift of the economy away from the manufacturing sector to the service sector, which employes relatively more women.)

One of the sections I find most interesting is where he compares the current situation to the flight of manufacturing jobs from inner cities in the 1970s. As a result, unemployment for urban black males skyrocketed in the '70s and '80s, and with that came a whole slew of social problems to inner cities. Is that a preview of what's coming this decade to what have been stable working-class communities? Peck says, "It remains to be seen whether large swaths of the country, as male joblessness persists, will eventually come to resemble the inner cities of the 1970s and '80s."

I think I'm still digesting the article. And I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on it. But I have to say that my initial reaction was that Peck's article does two things:
1) It demonstrates the human--rather than merely the economic--toll of persistent unemployment.
2) And it makes one of the best arguments I've heard for a robust public works program and a radical (in its simplicity) full employment policy.
A previous generation of progressives understood the value of of work not just for the size of our economy but for the character of our nation and its people. Franklin Roosevelt thought that having a job was a basic human right. What happened to that idea? Why not guarantee a job for anyone and everyone who is able and willing to work? We know how to do this. We've been flirting with the idea for about 70 years. Let's make the federal government the employer of last resort. If you can't find a job anywhere else, you ought to be able to contact the modern version of the Works Progress Administration and go to work laying new high-speed commuter rail line or building solar and wind farms. You ought to be able to contact the modern version of the Civilian Conservation Corps and get a job restoring wetlands or planting trees. A new National Teachers Corps ought to retrain people to become teachers in poverty-stricken and overcrowded schools. You get the idea. You wouldn't get rich in any of these jobs (that's what the private sector is for), but you'd make a living wage in a respectable and dignified job making the country a better place.

There would be a serious cost associated with creating work for the millions of Americans who want jobs. But after reading Don Peck's article, I'm even more convinced that it's less than the cost of having millions of Americans unable to find work at all.


Camp Papa said...

If you know what to look for, you can still see the results of the labor of our fathers and grandfathers in the New Deal programs. But, I wonder if 21st century Americans would work under the conditions of the WPA and CCC workers?

That aside, your point is well taken.

Sara said...

I read in our local paper yesterday, David Brook's article> about this, too.

All major food for thought.

(can't wait to see if my hyperlink worked!)

Sara said...