Guest Commentary: The last (sad) laughs
How much longer will America’s “gravest recession” last?
Of course, no one knows for sure, but a table produced by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which since 1939 has tracked the increase or decrease in non-farm jobs as reported in its monthly Employer Survey, offers a very cautionary note. From its post-Great Depression base of 29.2 million, America added 109.6 million non-farm jobs until reaching the peak figure of 138.8 million in 2007. Since December 2007, when this Great Recession started, non-farm payrolls have declined by 11.2 million, and employment overall - of all types - has declined by 13 million jobs.
Replacing these millions of jobs - and adding the 140,000 a month needed in order to keep pace with growth in the labor force - must be our nation’s highest priority. And yet, sadly, it isn’t.
The White House and Congress seem wildly disconnected from the jobs crisis, perhaps because they spend so much time aiming a strobe light on health care reform, Iraqi elections, a new START treaty, financial industry reform, climate change, an amended No Child Left Behind, Afghanistan and a balanced budget.
The BLS non-farm payroll table offers a focused summary of job creation in the past and a strong sense of what may be possible in the future: America’s best three-year job creation total was 10.3 million, which occurred from 1997 to 1999; its second best effort produced 9.4 million jobs between 2004 and 2006; and the third-best performance was 7.7 million new jobs in the years 1984 to 1986.
But America needs to find at least 11.2 to 13.0 million jobs right now just to get us back to December 2007’s employment level, which itself was no great shakes, and 22 million new jobs if we want to have, as morally we should, near full real employment. And for every month we delay further, the total increases by 140,000 jobs, which, if measured over three years, would total a further 5.0 million jobs.
Yet not once in seven decades have we ever added more than 10.3 million jobs in three years.
Economists can debate which single ‘lever’ can best add millions of jobs a year for the next several years but, to date, we have used almost none of the arrows in the nation’s job recovery quiver. Meanwhile 18 to 20 percent of America’s workers have been unemployed or extremely underemployed for 27 months. And the levers which we have ignored most consistently are programs modeled after FDR’s Works Progress Administration which from 1938 through 1940 employed 5.8 million jobless Americans. That’s roughly 17 percent of the then entire non-farm workforce, a figure comparable to the task confronting our nation today.
This White House and this Congress seem intent on proving that history repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce. Their initial jobs programs have been ‘missing in action’, and their use of phantom ‘jobs saved’ versus ‘real jobs not created’ is beyond misleading.
Like the “unemployables” of the Great Depression before FDR came along, America’s jobless today face the cruelest of choices: hunger, homelessness and declining heath. And their anxiety and anger are growing even as their hope fades.
But the jobless are not completely destitute in a democracy. They still own their votes which can be ‘spent’ on election days -- or not. Given their sheer numbers, the jobless can determine the outcome of any election. And their decision to go vote -- or to boycott an election -- make them a power block to be courted and convinced that “jobs, jobs, jobs” is more that cheap political rhetoric.
If the BLS total non-farm payroll history is any indication, the jobless will have at least three election cycles - 2010, 2012 and 2014 - to spend those votes, and then, as embittered as they will be, theirs will be “the last (sad) laughs.”
Rick Sloan is the Acting Executive Director of “Ur Union of Unemployed.” Ur Union of Unemployed, or UCubed, is a community service project of the IAM that offers the unemployed a way to work together to help end the Great Recession of 2007.