New Year, Old Unemployment Crisis: Your Sunday Conversation

01/05/2014 09:15 am ET | Updated Mar 07, 2014
ASSOCIATED PRESS

Welcome to a new year everyone! How do you like the look of 2014 so far? Well, if you are like me, you're worried.

It's not the sort of thing that got talked about on the Sunday shows, because the producers of those shows don't actually like ordinary people, but on Dec. 28, 1.3 million Americans who had been left clinging to their unemployment insurance as a lifeline during the unemployment crisis lost that lifeline, and have taken an incremental step closer to a 2014 of possibly freezing or starving to death. This is, as the Economist points out, the "darker shadow" of this crisis -- the world of the long-term unemployed.

It's a story that resonates with me, because not long ago, I was unemployed for an extended period of time.

And, actually, that's a lie. That time in my life is more than eight years in the past. And I was fortunate enough to experience unemployment in the pre-Great Recession age, before this strange new normal settled on the landscape. The thing is, it doesn't take much for my brain to tap that old well of fear, and spread the anxiety I felt for that half-year throughout my body. The recall is near instant, and the emotional response beyond my control.

But this was before the rest of the world downturned in 2008, and unemployment shifted from being a terrifying, ethereal setback to something that felt hand-delivered by the Grim Reaper.

There's a fatalist edge to unemployment stories now. I can read it in the stories my colleague Arthur Delaney writes about the scores of economic sufferers he's talked to over the past few years. Gawker did an excellent series of "Unemployment Stories" as well. I've read about men and women, desperate for work, who've made thousands upon thousands of attempts to get hired. I've read about middle-aged and aging families, where fathers, sons, mothers, and daughters have unimpeachably played by the old rules of the game, only to end up here, at the start of a new century, falling apart in spite of it all.

The protagonists of these stories sound a little more like cornered animals than human beings. There is a lot of suicidal ideation. I understand that a little bit -- after a few months of fruitlessly looking for work, desperately hoping for one more want ad that's alive with possibilities or one more voice on the phone that seems remotely interested in you, you do start to wonder, "What is the point of me?"

Of course, the unemployment rate has been ticking down, in a not insignificant way. And we begin this year with talk of a more genuine, sustainable, recovery. But whether these predictions end up being what we hope, or what we've hyped, here are four real unemployment worries to be mindful of.

1. The problems the long-term unemployed face are unique. And as the Economist points out, the hardest problem they face is the fact that employers persistently discriminate against the long-term unemployed.

2. Just adding jobs to the economy isn't enough. "Typically," writes The New York Times' Catherine Rampell, "the figure economists cite as the minimum number of additional jobs needed to keep the unemployment rate flat is about 150,000 to 200,000" each month. We've been doing a better job lately, but remember, we're also digging out of a hole.

3. That shrinking unemployment rate can cover up a number of sins. Such as: the U6 unemployment rate, which measures the unemployed, the underemployed, and those too discouraged to look for work. In November 2013, this rate stood at 13.2 percent.

4. What will the future of jobs look like? Remember: all the people from Mac McClelland's story about Amazon fulfillment center workers show up on the positive side of the U4 unemployment rate. As people get back to work, we have to start asking what sort of jobs are we going back to? And do they offer real dignity?

Finally, don't expect much help from your Beltway centrist elites, who've lately been doing a lot of disingenuous moaning about employment, many years after it would have been useful. That's by design, by the way. Washington Monthly's Ryan Cooper closed out the year with a piece I've not been able to forget. Specifically, this part:

I think ... the new centrist focus on jobs is best viewed as a tactical retreat cloaking the traditional elite agenda of austerity and deficit reduction, which has been discredited due to its utter intellectual collapse. There are a variety of cultural, financial and political reasons for this kind of thinking (best outlined by Michal Kalecki) but the important thing is that they have nothing to do with jobs or growth, so they're completely impervious to traditional evidence. And this makes perfect sense -- as Paul Krugman points out today, the American elite has almost never been in such a dominant position. Who needs a stronger job market when profits are high and workers cowed?

Oh, yeah, and you should probably worry about health care, too, right? Happy New Year!

---

Here are some other matters of import from this week:

--Oh, you should probably be worried about health care, too? Tens of millions of Americans were uninsured back in 2008 and the Affordable Care Act is what we came up to solve that problem. What sort of state will Obamacare be in, at the end of the year? Jonathan Cohn rounds up eight predictions, and yes, they are all over the map so have fun guessing!

-- Ruth Marcus and David Brooks both used to smoke pot, but quit because they were worried it would make them dumber. I guess their decision to quit came too late?

-- The hot new thing in solving unemployment come in the form of some decent ideas proposed by Michael Strain. But wait, does "Michael Strain" refer to a majority of members in the House and a filibuster-proof gang in the Senate? No. "Michael Strain" is just one dude from the American Enterprise Institute. And so, Jamelle Bouie, while excited about Strain's ideas, laments that they are going nowhere.

-- Former Vikings punter Chris Kluwe torches a few bridges. Alex Pareene wants to push all major sports team owners out to sea on ice floes to die. That's sports, I guess.

-- As much as a garbage person Donald Trump is, it's still sad that someone has to write this sort of thing in 2014.

-- Set goals for yourself this year. How many cops will YOU fight off while masturbating in a methed-up frenzy this year? It pays to dream big.

[You'll find more Sunday Reads on my Rebel Mouse page. What stories mattered to you this week? Drop me a line and let us know what you are reading.]

This story appears in Issue 83 of our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, available Friday, Jan. 10 in the iTunes App store.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

Out-Of-Touch Politicians