THE BLOG
08/04/2011 10:34 am ET | Updated Oct 04, 2011

Citizens First, Consumers Second

As we head toward the end of the week when the government will release July's employment data, the economy, we now know, grew only 0.4 percent in the first quarter of 2011, rather than 1.9 percent, as reported previously. Overhanging this dismaying news, the acrimony of the debt ceiling crisis lingers in the Washington atmosphere.

Clearly, the Great Recession, declared at its end in June 2009, is ongoing in its impact and aftershocks. At least 15 million Americans remain unemployed, and approximately three million of the jobless are 50-plus. Since early 2010, filmmaker Sam Newman and I have used video to chronicle the stories of 100 unemployed older Americans in a multimedia documentary project, Over 50 and Out of Work. This data comes from the Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Status of the civilian non-institutional population by age, sex and race and from our interview with Professor Andrew Sum.

Although older workers were able to hang onto their jobs more successfully than younger workers during the economic downturn, those who were laid off now face a much harder time getting back to work. The duration of unemployment for older workers is about one year, which is longer than this age group has ever previously experienced and longer than the average time out of work for any other demographic. Also, less than half of the older workers who lost their jobs have been able to return to work, a lower success rate than achieved by any other age group over the past two years.

Nevertheless, when the national unemployment rate (which does not reflect the underemployed or those who have dropped out of the labor force) is stuck above 9.0 percent, many Americans of all ages are suffering.

"There is a major disconnect between the reality of American labor markets and the leadership that we're getting from both political parties in the United States at this point in time," said Andrew Sum, director of the center for labor market studies at Northeastern University.

The persistent impact of the Great Recession is not caused by structural unemployment, Sum stressed. Rather, the economy is not growing. It is not creating enough jobs and, for the first time in U.S. history, nearly all the productivity gains are going to corporations, rather than to workers.

If you compare average income in the United States to other countries over the past 20 years, we rank first, Sum said. But if you remove only the top one percent of wage earners, the United States drops to the middle of the distribution, exposing growing American income inequality that is exacerbated by high levels of unemployment.

He said conservatives like to call the current situation structural because the label implies that the government cannot help create jobs by stimulating the economy. On the other hand, liberals like to believe that additional training will solve the problem of unemployment, but Sum said, workers' lack of skills is not the issue -- there simply are not enough jobs.

It has been widely reported that there are more than five unemployed workers for every available job, but the center's research reveals that statistic is misleading. When seasonal and part-time job listings are culled out, the result is eight workers seeking every year-round, full-time job, and in some industries, the ratio is even worse. There are 15 blue-collar production and 25 construction workers to each available job in their respective industries.

Sum's back-to-basics advice to kick start job creation is straightforward. First, require government-funded projects to have 80 to 90 percent domestic content to guarantee that jobs stay in the United States. Second, reward companies that create domestic jobs with tax incentives. Third, Americans should purchase products made in the United States to help promote domestic job retention and growth.

As we have traveled around the country, many of our Over 50 and Out of Work interviewees have suggested remedies for our economic woes similar to Sum's proposed policies.

"Myself, I would pay a little bit more if I knew it was made in the United States," said David Board, 51, steelworker from Weirton, W.V.

Sum argues that other countries view it as loyal to purchase goods made domestically and not in their best interest to buy products manufactured abroad. In contrast, Sum said, the United States has adopted an "open global mind" that has killed the American worker.

In order to retain and create U.S. jobs, we should reorder our priorities. We should be citizens first, making sure that all Americans have opportunities to work and thrive. We should be consumers second. The goal of buying all goods at the cheapest possible price not only comes at the expense of domestic jobs, it also promotes the loss of American innovation and technological knowledge. We have emphasized short-term consumerism over long-term sustainable growth shared by the entire population.