Some politicians are saying that the latest unemployment report is good news, but it's not. It shows us that this country is still in crisis. It shows us that the government needs to act quickly and aggressively to create jobs, and to restore the lost earning power of the average American who has a job.
Most of all it shows us that millions of struggling people are still invisible in the nation's capitol.
This week the Occupy movement is holding a series of "Take Back the Capitol" events in Washington. Let's hope it shines some light on the country's unemployed, under-employed, and under-earning millions. Until now, they've been pretty much invisible in that town.
The Invisible Americans are all around you. They're in your state, in your community, maybe in your family. Maybe they're your kids, just out of college. Maybe they're your 50-something uncles and aunts, your grandparents, your grandchildren. They're right there in the jobs report, for anyone with the eyes -- and the willingness -- to find them.
Invisible: Millions of the Long-Term Unemployed
While some celebrated an unemployment rate of "only" 8.6 percent, half that change was explained by the fact that 315,000 people dropped out of the labor force. Job creation barely kept pace with the entry of new people into the workforce.
Those 315,000 people join the 5.7 million people officially classified as long-term unemployed. That number is at historically high levels, representing nearly half (43 percent) of all the jobless people in this country.
It's not that they don't want jobs. Most of them have fallen into despair. Even worse, what they may have fallen into is realism. Unless we use the power of government to do something, some of them will never work again. They're falling out of the "normal" economy and into a new reality of persistent joblessness and, for some, eventual poverty.
Invisible: Segregation on the Unemployment Line
The official jobless rate for white people is 7.6 percent, versus 15.5 percent for African Americans and 11.4 percent for Hispanics.
And those are only the official numbers. The figures are much higher if you count the long-term unemployed, the under-employed, and "discouraged" workers.
In a nation that prides itself on being the land of opportunity, we're denying entire groups of people the chance for a better life.
Invisible: The Jobless Generation
There's a silent epidemic of youth unemployment. Official teenaged unemployment is 23.7 percent, and the real rate is much higher. Recent college graduates face historically high jobless rates -- along with historically high student debt.
Studies show that young people who begin their work lives un- or under-employed face an entire lifetime of lower income. By failing to act, we're betraying our own children and throwing away an entire generation of young people.
Invisible: The Under-employed
There's a silent epidemic of under-employment. There are 8.5 million people who want to work full-time but can only get part-time work in that category. That figure dropped slightly, but we don't know how much of the drop was due to people finding full-time work or being laid off altogether.
And remember, underemployed people aren't just making less money. In most cases they're also going without health insurance or other benefits. They're struggling on the margins of working America, barely surviving and never knowing how much money they'll earn from one week to the next.
Invisible: The Vanishing Public Servant
While Washington politicians drone on about "budget cuts," there's not much discussion of the fact that many of those cuts increase unemployment -- at the Federal, state, and local levels. Government jobs have been dwindling since 2008, and the shrinkage is continuing a time when we need more of them.
Teachers, police officers, highway toll takers, postal workers -- you name it, they're losing their jobs. And the only debate in Washington seems to be, how many more of them can we make unemployed?
Invisible: The Drowning Middle Class
Average hourly earnings for all nonfarm employees decreased last month by 1 percent. Average hourly earnings increased by only 1.8 percent over the last year, while the cost of living (measured by the Consumer Price Index) increased 3.5 percent.
Once again, average Americans have fallen behind in earnings and have seen their standard of living decline. Meanwhile, incomes continue to skyrocket for the wealthiest Americans. Income inequality is the worst it's been since the Great Depression.
Welcome to the New Gilded Age.
This week we heard almost nothing in Washington about direct action to address these crises. The Democrats' "payroll tax holiday" would provide urgently needed ongoing relief for the battered middle class, and would also have a mild job-creating effect. But it would do so in an inefficient way, and also needlessly and recklessly endangers Social Security.
Republicans have no solution at all -- just more of the same policies that caused these problems in the first place.
Our neighbors deserve better than this. We deserve better than this. Change starts with a simple statement we can make to those around us, and they can make to us: You're not invisible. I see you.
People in Washington over-complicate the debate by tinkering at the margins: tax-break this, incentive that. Those things will have some effect, but there's a simpler and better way to fix the joblessness problem: put people to work. At a time when this country needs trillions of dollar in infrastructure repair, government should hire people and get on with it.
George W. Bush had no problem doing that a few years ago. He signed a bill spending more than a quarter of a trillion dollars on infrastructure spending while the Republican Speaker of the House bragged about creating. But Republicans would apparently rather prolong the suffering so that they can defeat Obama and the Democrats in 2012.
As for the Obama Democrats, either they don't understand the problem or they don't think it's politically smart to propose fixing it. I suspect it's the latter -- and they're dead wrong. The president's jobs bill had some useful ideas. But the president went small on the fixes and, in his typical fashion, couldn't resist pushing useless conservative "job creation" ideas along with the good ones.
We need a massive jobs program now to fix our crumbling bridges, highways, railroads, dams, and public buildings. We need to fix wage stagnation by going back to the policies that built the middle class, beginning with stronger collective bargaining rights for working people. Unions were one of the engines of post-World-War-II prosperity, and the war on unions needs to stop.
We also need higher taxes for the wealthy, tax advantages for companies that hire, and higher taxes for those who make money by gambling, trading other people's debts, or hedging against the success of the American economy. We need to downsize the financial sector, which is capturing too much corporate profit and squeezing out job-creating businesses.
And we need to rebuild the firewall between banking and speculating, so that we can end too-big-to-fail and the boom-and-bust cycle that keeps crashing the economy.
Some political party, maybe one that has had a reputation for defending the middle class, ought to say something this: We know what's going on out there. We understand the problem. Here's how we would fix it. We're going to introduce these measures in the House and Senate wherever and whenever we can, so you can see who's fighting for the Invisible Americans, and who's fighting against them.
But no party appears willing to do that, at least not without the presence of a non-partisan movement that forces it to act.
Someday, historians will review this country's history to find those times when our people and our leaders responded to a crisis with vision and courage. They'll see the millions of Americans who rose to the occasion during the War of Independence, the Civil War, World War II, and the Great Depression.
But will they see us, or will we have become... invisible?
Our political leaders need to be pressured -- a lot -- which is why the Occupy events in Washington are so important. We need to build and maintain a movement for real change, a movement that sees the invisible ones among us, a movement that sees each of us and makes us visible, a movement that fights unrelentingly for a better society.
Hope to "see" you soon -- on the barricades.