By BOB HERBERT
Published August 9, 2010
The employment situation in the United States is much worse than even the dismal numbers from last week’s jobless report would indicate. The nation is facing a full-blown employment crisis and policy makers are not responding with anything like the sense of urgency that is needed.
The employment data for July, released by the government on Friday, showed that private employers added just 71,000 jobs during the month and that the unemployment rate remained flat at 9.5 percent. But as bad as those numbers were, if you look beyond them you’ll see a horror show.
Government workers were walking the plank from coast to coast. About 143,000 temporary Census workers were let go, and another 48,000 government employees at the budget-strapped state and local levels lost their jobs. But the worst news, with the most ominous long-term implications, was that the reason the unemployment rate was not higher was because 181,000 workers left the labor force.
With many of them beaten down by the worst jobs situation since the Great Depression, they just stopped looking for work. And given the Alice-in-Wonderland way in which we compile our official jobless statistics, they are no longer counted as unemployed.
Charles McMillion, the president and chief economist of MBG Information Services in Washington, is an expert on employment and has been looking closely for years at the issue of labor force participation. “Over the past three months,” he said, “1,155,000 unemployed people dropped out of the active labor force and were not counted as unemployed. Even ignoring population growth, if these unemployed had not dropped out of the labor force, simple arithmetic shows that the official unemployment rate would have risen from 9.9 percent in April to 10.2 percent in July, rather than — as it has — fallen to 9.5 percent.”
Because of normal growth in the working-age population, the labor force increases by roughly 150,000 to 200,000 people per month. If those folks were factored in, said Mr. McMillion, “unemployment now would be even higher than 10.2 percent.”
We are not even beginning to cope with this crisis, which began long before the onset of the so-called Great Recession. The economy is showing absolutely no sign of countering the nation’s staggering jobs deficit.
“We have a large number of people who have just given up hope of finding a job,” said Mr. McMillion. He pointed out that there are record numbers — “I mean lights-out record numbers” — of long-term unemployed people who are still looking for jobs. Of the 14.6 million men and women officially counted as unemployed, nearly 45 percent have been out of work for six months or longer.
The Times’s Michael Luo wrote a moving article last week about the people who have started calling themselves the “99ers,” meaning they have been out of work for more than 99 weeks and thus have exhausted the absolute maximum in unemployment benefits. Nearly a million and a half people have been out of work for at least 99 weeks — and not all of them qualified for jobless benefits.
Said Mr. McMillion: “When you combine the long-term unemployed with those who are dropping out and those who are working part-time because they can’t find anything else, it is just far beyond anything we’ve seen in the job market since the 1930s.”
They may be thinking about this in Washington, but they sure aren’t doing much about it. The politicians’ approach to the jobs crisis has been like passing out umbrellas in a hurricane. Millions are suffering and the entire economy is being undermined, and what are they doing? They’re appropriating more and more money for warfare while schizophrenically babbling about balancing the budget.
At some point we’re going to have to claw our way out of this denial. With 14.6 million people officially jobless, and 5.9 million who have stopped looking but say they want a job, and 8.5 million who are working part time but would like to work full time, you end up with nearly 30 million Americans who cannot find the work they want and desperately need.
We’ve got more and more people in our working-age population and fewer and fewer jobs to go around. Mr. McMillion tells us that there are now 3.4 million fewer private-sector jobs in the U.S. than there were a decade ago. In the last 10 years, we’ve seen the worst job creation record since 1928 to 1938.
We’re not heading toward the danger zone. We’re there. The U.S. will not remain a stable society if this great employment crisis is not addressed head-on — and soon. You cannot allow joblessness on this scale to fester. It’s wrong, and the blowback will be as destructive and intolerable as it is inevitable.