…by Meg White
The place Meg puts the stuff she wrote
The Effort to Prevent 9.8% Unemployment From Becoming the ‘New Normal’
Categories: Commentary, Economy

by Meg White

It’s tough to put a rosy face on the unemployment numbers released Friday morning.

While we saw this same jobless rate as recently as 1983, the plunge mimics a much older feeling. Since the food linesbeginning of the recession in December 2007, the unemployment rate has doubled to 9.8 percent, a decline that hasn’t been seen since the Great Depression.

As the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics makes public September’s higher-than-expected unemployment numbers, you’ll likely hear a lot of stories highlighting the disparity between Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke saying the recession is basically already over last month and the growing number of job-seekers in this country. National Public Radio’s treatment of the story pointed out that jobs will lag well into next year, if previous recessions are any clue, and that we may experience a “jobless recovery” or even a “double-dip recession.”

The announcement of September’s jobless rate is coupled with a whispered warning of a “new normal,” where we won’t be surprised by nearly ten percent of our workforce being unemployed anymore. What seems untenable now may become ordinary, some economists warn. For example, last month on the anniversary of the U.S. economy hitting rock bottom, economic advisor and financial expert Alvin Hall told NPR’s Jennifer Ludden that the recovery will come when we stop losing jobs, not when we start making them (emphasis mine):

I think the recovery will indicate itself when things stabilize, when the jobless rate stop rising. The new normal is looking at unemployment claims that are flat, the rise in unemployment stops. That’s the new normal. Our day-to-day lives, we don’t see yet the possibility of more income, but we can hold on to what we have. That’s the new normal.

It’s a depressing thought, which is probably why you don’t hear many in the media fleshing out the term outside of financial reporting. After all, if those who are unemployed now saw their current position as endemic (if not for them, for some poor schmuck somewhere in the country) and not temporary, consumer confidence might plummet even further. So what do we do to stop this from becoming normal?

Well, MoveOn.org sent me an e-mail today urging me to head down to Sen. Roland Burris’ office for an unemployment demonstration with an interesting twist:

The jobs situation is a crisis. So we’re organizing a symbolic unemployment line TODAY in front of Sen. Burris’s office in Chicago to call for passage of President Obama’s clean energy jobs plan and the 1.7 million new jobs it would create.

My first reaction was to wonder if a “symbolic unemployment line” isn’t somewhat insulting to those who have to stand in real unemployment lines. That thought aside, the demonstration is a smart one both ideologically and visually. First of all, very few can argue against the virtue of building a green economy. Second, the image of a line of needy people — be it a bread line, unemployment line or the queue at Ellis Island — is a potent political symbol in the land of plenty.

But, as it has proven itself very capable of doing time and time again over the past year or so, Move On has again misappropriated a salient symbol for use in a watered-down half-measure.

Green jobs are a necessity. They’re surely part of the long-term plan if the United States wants to keep up in what Thomas Friedman recently called “the new Sputnik.” The Space Race of our age is, no doubt, one of green tech, and the government must encourage and foster innovation.

But in truth, Move On’s demand for “green jobs now” is nothing more than a temporary salve for what might be a permanent problem. The people now lining up before unemployment offices across the country are not, for the most part, going to be plucked from those lines by green entrepreneurs.

It’s important to remember that the jobless rate is quite misleading, with soaring numbers of underemployed people, as well as those who have given up looking for a job, being overlooked in the mainstream press. With the average length of a job search growing beyond record levels, the unemployed are more desperate than in the past. Many of them are like this single mom interviewed for NPR’s piece on unemployment today, who said she’s “been looking for jobs that I never thought I would do in my life” just to keep from becoming homeless.

Green jobs initiatives are important, but they will not save this woman from being homeless. When college-educated, experienced workers are applying for jobs at Taco Bell, parading around a lame-duck senator’s office while he’s in Washington to “really show Sen. Burris that people in the Chicago area want action to create good jobs” will not shorten tomorrow’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families application line.

That’s not to say there aren’t things Congress can do to help mitigate the immediate problems of joblessness. The extension of emergency unemployment benefits by 13 weeks will help in the 26 or so states with high unemployment rates.

Demanding green jobs and strengthening stop-gap measures such as unemployment compensation will only help us eventually dig ourselves out, and won’t force us to learn from our mistakes. We have to look at the root causes of this crisis and change the way we do business. Move On, with its lion’s roar dimmed to a kitten’s purr in non-election years, has been silent on many of the more controversial issues of the day, and has been extremely reticent to criticize the Obama Administration.

That’s why independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ video address from a couple weeks back was so refreshing. He merged the very personal issue of unemployment with the root causes of the recession, and proposed that Congress actually — gasp — do something about it. The entire video is worth watching, but he ends with this strong appeal (emphasis mine):

What we must demand — and this is enormously important, very few people are talking about it — is a new Wall Street. A Wall Street not designed to make hundreds of millions of dollars for their CEOs, but a Wall Street designed to help increase manufacturing in the United States, create decent jobs, help small businesses do something for the productive economy. Another area that we need to return to is our disastrous trade policies which allow Corporate America to throw American workers out on the street, move to China, pay people 50 cents an hour, bring those products back into this country. So there is a lot of work in front of us in terms of the economy. Let’s stay focused on this issue, and don’t believe anybody who is telling you, quote on quote, the recession is over.

It’s easy for Move On to praise green jobs, but when is the last time you heard them talk about NAFTA or regulating Wall Street? I want to thank Sen. Sanders for having the courage to say what we all know, but can’t seem to say aloud. Not only is this recession not over, no matter what the stock market or Federal Reserve Bank says, but job losses will continue unless we change the way we think of employment, business and the economy in this country.


Image courtesy of WoodleyWonderWorks’ photostream on Flickr.

Originally published at BuzzFlash.com.

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