Pres. Barack Obama is given to cute vehicular metaphors about the state of the economy. We were “in a ditch,” then got out and hit a “bump in the road.” This is studiously folksy. It also vastly understates the nature of our situation.
President Obama is presiding over an unspooling social catastrophe in the form of unemployment, and especially long-term unemployment. For all those people who are chronically unemployed, it’s as if they have been hit by the proverbial car and then backed over by it again and again.
According to the Wall Street Journal, nearly a third of the unemployed — 4 million people — have been out of work for more than a year. Almost half of the unemployed have been out of a job for more than six months, a figure higher than during the Great Depression. They may wonder when it was exactly that we got out of “the ditch.”
The statistics tell a dire, but incomplete, story. We were built to work. When we want to and can’t, it is an assault on our very personhood. A Rutgers University study of the unemployed a few years ago found, unsurprisingly, “that they experienced anxiety, helplessness, depression, stress and sleeping problems after losing their jobs.”
The insidious thing about long-term unemployment is that it builds on itself — the longer you are without a job, the harder it is to get one. The Bureau of Labor Statistics finds that the chance of someone unemployed for less than five weeks finding a job in the next month is about 30 percent. For someone unemployed 27 weeks or more, it’s just 10 percent.
For an economy so famously on the mend that it experienced “recovery summer” last year, the trend has been in the wrong direction. A Pew study notes that the number of people unemployed for a year or more increased by 25 percent from December 2009 to December 2010.
The job market is now segregated by levels of educational attainment, but long-term joblessness disregards schooling. Once they are unemployed, about 30 percent of college graduates, high-school graduates, and high-school dropouts are out of a job for more than a year. It doesn’t matter what sector of the economy they come from. “More than 20 percent of unemployed workers in every non-agricultural industry,” Pew writes, “have been out of work for a year or more.”
So here is a wide-ranging blight that affects not just people’s incomes right now, but their sense of self-respect and their futures. Yet it’s often been an afterthought for the president. He has repeatedly said he was going to “pivot to jobs.” How could he ever have pivoted off of them? To paraphrase Rahm Emanuel, a crisis is a terrible thing not to address.
Given the history of recessions driven by financial meltdowns, it was inevitable we’d have a lingering unemployment problem. All the more reason to gear every possible policy toward augmenting job growth. Once he passed his ramshackle social-spending bill called the “stimulus,” though, Obama devoted most of his attention to re-engineering key sectors of the American economy — health care, finance, energy — regardless of the economic consequences.
His economic measures were supposed to be timely and temporary, but they either didn’t work or were temporary indeed. We’ve been left with a fragile economy in the near term, while in the longer term a growing debt, unsustainable entitlements, and a senseless tax code — all of which Obama either hasn’t addressed or has made worse — threaten the vitality of the country.
Democrats may want next year’s election to be about Medicare; Republicans may have thought it would be about debt. But if current conditions hold, it will instead be about unemployment and the associated economic travails of stagnant wages, falling home values, and rising prices. There is no more natural theme in our politics than “putting America back to work.” Next year, Obama could be vulnerable to it. It’s the flashing red light of his reelection.