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What Hurricane Irene Can Teach Us About the Jobs Crisis

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CAREER CONFIDENCE CERTAINTY MORTIMER SOCIOLOGY STU
AP

With the death toll at 40 and rising, historic flooding in Vermont and parts of upstate New York, millions without power and an estimated $7-10 billion worth of damage, we can hardly say that anything about Hurricane Irene is cause for celebration -- but it would have been much, much worse were it not for the amazing collective action both by the federal and local governments, and by neighbors and communities.

The storm's proximity to the 10th anniversary of 9/11 gives these efforts added resonance. At a time when the nation seems paralyzed and polarized, the pending milestone has already been cause for reflection about a time -- in the days and weeks after the attacks -- when the country showed all the incredible ways that we could come together. That spirit still exists at the community level, but has been lost at the national level.

Over the last weekend, we watched the country once again come together as we tapped into that All-American barn-raising -- or, in this case, barn-maintaining -- spirit. After the storm passed in New York City, there was certainly relief, but also a kind of exhilaration at having gone through an intense, shared experience with a lot of other people. We came through it a little bit closer to one another than we went into it.

What Irene and the response to it showed is that when the media devote wall-to-wall attention to something, and government officials bring a sense of urgency and ask the public to respond in kind, remarkable things can happen. What this weekend demonstrated is that even though we can't do anything to stop the hurricane, with resolve and collective action we can greatly mitigate its destructive impact. Clearly, that capacity is always there. The question is: why do we only tap into it for natural disasters and external attacks?

The fact is, we have another crisis that's been hovering over the entire United States for almost three years now and shows no signs of blowing over. The numbers should be just as scary as the ones that have dominated our national conversation about Irene:

Right now, there are over 25 million Americans unemployed or underemployed.

The number who have been unemployed for 27 weeks or more is over 6 million.

The average duration of unemployment now stands at over 40 weeks, the highest since the financial crisis began.

With the toll that the job crisis is taking on the lives of millions of people in this country -- from college graduates who can't get jobs to middle class families being thrown out of their homes -- this is a Category 5 disaster. In extreme cases, financial desperation has even been a reported cause in suicides. "We have noticed many more people mentioning the economy," said Eve Meyer, executive director of the nonprofit San Francisco Suicide Prevention, which has seen an increase in suicides on the Golden Gate Bridge. "We constantly hear, 'I'm going to be homeless; I would rather be dead than be homeless.'"

Studies show that around 18 months into an economic crisis, suicides begin to rise. "Benefits run out and the crises begin to multiply," said Meyer. Plus, we know that there are myriad other downstream life-and-death consequences of prolonged, economic decline.

Faced with the threat of economic devastation, and even the loss of life: in one instance, we move heaven and earth to prevent them; in the other, we simply accept them. Why is that?

As Hurricane Irene first bore down on North Carolina, various government agencies sprang into action. Scientists and experts were called in to help. Models and forecasts were produced -- then quickly acted upon. We knew what the economic and human consequences would be if we didn't act, so we did.

And then the media sprang into action. Reporters didn't just give us the facts, they told us stories and created a sense of shared experience. Yes, coverage of extreme weather often goes overboard -- sometimes literally (as Jeff Jarvis Tweeted: CNN guy standing in water when he could be standing on pier right next to him. Needless, showoff idiocy. #stormporn) -- but the excessive coverage showed how effective the media can be when they declare something urgent and vital. There were often so many reporters swarming the scene that, as the New York Times' Nick Confessore Tweeted, "Stopped to interview someone. It was another reporter. #irene #reporterproblems."

If only there were as many reporters eager to report from the multiple scenes of our jobs crisis. Despite the fact that, in poll after poll, Americans say that jobs is the issue most important to them, a study by the National Journal concluded that reporting about unemployment fell during the last two years while stories about the deficit skyrocketed.

Of course, the media are not alone in this pivot away from the real emergency. This past weekend, we saw the parade of governors and mayors -- Christie, Bloomberg, Cuomo, O'Malley, Corbett, Perdue -- in the now familiar Emergency Press Conference Protocol: sporting windbreakers, standing in front of a temporary podium, flanked by emergency personnel and the heads of relevant agencies, all with looks of grim determination and resolve. It's the look of action. It's the look that says, "This is not going to be easy but we are up to the task and will do everything in our power." And they did to great effect.

Contrast that with the dominant message about the jobs crisis: paralysis, acquiescence, resignation. Not a lot of windbreaker moments.

My guess is that the approval ratings for all those mentioned above are going to rise because of their strong, effective performances during the hurricane. Compare that with the attitudes found in a recent Pew poll. President Obama got a job approval rating of 43 percent. The number viewing the GOP favorably was 34 percent. Congress got 25 percent. And 86 percent reported that they felt "angry" or "frustrated" with the federal government.

Respond to a crisis, and the public responds back. Don't respond, and the public grows angry and frustrated.

Just as we knew what the consequences of not acting would have been during Irene, we know what the consequence of not acting have been -- and will continue to be -- with the jobs crisis. As Paul Krugman points out, the Congressional Budget Office estimates that by 2015 there will be a total output gap -- the difference between what we're capable of producing and what we are producing -- of $5.1 trillion.

What an enormous waste of human potential. And what makes it so tragic is that it's so avoidable. "If you had told people back in, say, 2007 that this would happen, they would have asserted with confidence that generating a faster recovery would be at the top of the political agenda," writes Krugman. "The fact that it isn't -- that deficits are still dominating the conversation, even as interest rates plumb record lows -- is truly remarkable."

In his speech on Sunday about Irene, the president rightly praised the emergency response and painted a picture of government and citizenry in common action. Just imagine if the following described the response to the jobs crisis and not just the hurricane:

"You need to know that America will be with you in your hour of need."

"... federal agencies are doing everything in their power to help folks on the ground."

"We're going to make sure that we respond as quickly and effectively as possible."

"This has been an exemplary effort of how good government at every level should be responsive to people's needs, work to keep them safe, and protect and promote the nation's prosperity."

"I want to thank scientists who provide the information necessary for governors and mayors to make sound decisions, disaster response experts who made sure we were as prepared as possible."

"... the past few days have been a shining example of how Americans open our homes and our hearts to those in need and pull together in tough times to help our fellow citizens prepare for and respond to, as well as recover from, extraordinary challenges, whether natural disasters or economic difficulties. That's what makes the United States of America a strong and resilient nation, a strong and resilient people."

He's right. All of that was true during the hurricane and it was moving to see it in action. Now that we've been reminded of what is possible, let's rally again -- this time in response to the devastating economic winds blowing across America.