Perhaps it is the sheer size of this country that makes important problems invisible -- with each problem so localized and personal as not to count in public discourse. Or perhaps it is the sheer size of the problems themselves that enables them to hide in the open -- with each so large and so ubiquitous as to be thought simply normal. Or perhaps it is because as a country we are becoming blind -- so beset with problems that we chose to either play them down or ignore them altogether.
I think we are becoming blind.
I say that because of two conversations this week with friends whom I have known for more than a decade. One has just lost his job. The other is fearful of losing his. Those conversations brought home in an entirely personal way the scale and impact of the jobs crisis with which this economy is still beset -- a jobs crisis about which our political leaders and mainstream commentators now talk less and less, and with greater and greater degrees of superficiality. It is not that the jobs crisis is entirely ignored or that every commentator is silent. They are not. It is rather that once a month the politicians comment on the numbers; and once a month they then pass rapidly on to other things. In a culture with a low attention span, there seems to be no attention span lower than that of our political class when faced with the awesome reality of an economy stalled in recession. We have a jobs crisis of epic proportions, and yet -- with the honorable exception of a handful of legislators on the liberal wing of the Democratic Party -- our politicians chose to focus instead on anything and everything else.
•One friend was laid off after 35 years of working, mainly for one company. He was unexpectedly cast aside because of corporate downsizing. A man who has worked hard every week of his adult life -- a walking example of true American values -- was abruptly discarded, left with an empty Monday morning which he must now struggle to fill. In his late 50s, his chances of re-employment -- as he is all too aware -- are at best slim to negligible.
•The other friend, slightly younger but in the same business, still has his job, but is now watching a rolling program of redundancies working its way steadily in his direction. It is working its way towards him just at the time when he, like many parents of high school seniors, has to co-sign a student loan package for a son off to college -- signing just at the moment, that is, when his own sense of financial security is at its lowest.
Those two experiences will be lived -- indeed are being lived by the individuals caught up in them -- as personal crises, rooted in individual vulnerabilities, failures and limitations. They will be dealt with by both with integrity and courage. But in truth these two experiences are more than personal crises. They are typical -- prototypical -- of the lived reality lurking behind the employment numbers in today's America: they are the product of systemic weaknesses in American economy and society. Redundancy, involuntary unemployment, job insecurity and financial over-stretch are no longer the monopoly of the rural and urban poor. They were bad enough when they were. Unemployment and job insecurity are now becoming defining features of middle-class life in suburban America -- and as they become so, they are turning the American Dream into the American Nightmare for more and more Americans -- fellow citizens who are guilty only of working hard and of caring deeply for the families they love.
Employment and Unemployment After all, it is not as though we are still a full-employment economy. We are not. Current employment levels are still nearly 9 million lower than they were before the financial crisis hit in 2008. Private sector job growth is still anemic at best - just 88,000 jobs added in March 2013 in an economy needing at least twice that number simply to keep pace with labor force growth. Alongside that, public sector employment is actually falling - down by more than half a million between 2009 and 2012 -- the casualty of the austerity politics insisted upon by Republicans. The data on future unemployment levels and current labor force participation is dire: unemployment will remain high through 2013 and beyond, and rates of labor force participation continue to slide. The data on the job and earning prospects of this year's high school and college graduates is worse: "the long-run wage trends for young graduates are bleak, with wages substantially lower today than in 2000." The data on the fate of the long-term unemployed is worst of all: many employers are apparently not even looking at their resumes. The long-term stagnation of wages that was such a feature of the Reagan/Clinton boom has given way to an economy divided between the privileged few and the disadvantaged many: with more and more Americans either excluded from paid-work entirely; or trapped in part-time employment that does not pay enough to sustain a middle-class style of life; or forced into full-time jobs that under-utilize their skills and pay ever lower average wages.
Work and Stress It is hardly surprising then that the data on stress and unhappiness in contemporary America is so dramatic and so depressing. Over the last two decades, the consumption of anti-depressants in the United States has reached epidemic proportions: antidepressant use in the United States doubled in the decade after 1996 and has risen since. In the latest global survey of happiness and contentment, the United States ranked 23rd out of 178 countries studied, running behind all the Scandinavian countries, Canada and Ireland. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York produced a report last month linking the rise in personal bankruptcies to the burden of student loans; hardly surprising given that student debt is now on such a scale -- approaching $1 trillion in total -- as to already constitute a drag on the economy and potentially a trigger to the next financial crisis Currently, "four out of five Americans know relatives or family friends who were laid off during the past few years or were laid off themselves"; and one American child in six has an unemployed or underemployed parent. It is no accident that America's "sadness belt" is heavily concentrated in and around central and southern Appalachia -- the one area, as Lyndon Johnson observed long ago, that had "missed out on the abundance that had been granted to the rest of the nation." In Appalachia, as elsewhere in the contemporary United States, stress, ill health and poverty all go together. Poverty, with all its individual and social downsides, now afflicts at least one American in seven, helping in the process to turn us into the least healthy population in the advanced industrial world. Life expectancy is actually falling in America right now -- as a generation emerging from school and college find itself less and less able to produce the living standards of its parents. The most effective solution to poverty is employment. The most effective way to avoid a lost generation is to stimulate rapid economic growth: in the absence of both, poverty and stress abound.
So where is the public outcry and where is the adequate policy response? It is nowhere in sight. In more civilized capitalisms, unemployment and job insecurity are invariably met by a mixture of active labor-market policies and established worker rights. Economies like Germany, Denmark or Sweden vary in the balance they provide between job-protection (so that you can't simply be fired at the whim of senior management) and retraining programs (so that you are equipped with new skills and new job opportunities if job-loss is unavoidable). But not here -- here, after a limited (and now shrinking ) period of unemployment benefits, it's every man or woman for his/herself, as though rugged American individualism was the answer to all problems, including this one. But it is not. Neither the fear nor the reality of the unemployment which is now stalking the American suburbs is the product of individual fecklessness or of any lack of willingness to work. Both are the products of great shifts in the structure of the American economy and of cyclical shortfalls in levels of consumer demand. They are a collective disaster being experienced as a multitude of individual life-crises -- and like all collective disasters, they deserve and require a collective public response.
So wake up Washington. Stop playing the politics of prima-donnas over issues that are more important than you are. Let job creation be your number-one priority on each and every day, just as it unavoidably is for every unemployed or insecure worker. Or failing that, let us replace their job-loss by yours. If there has to be mass unemployment in contemporary America, let us do everything we can to concentrate it within the Washington beltway rather than outside it.
First posted with full academic citations at www.davidcoates.net