Friday, December 27, 2013

Why have we abandoned the long-term unemployed?

(WPA workers restoring the historic Rossborough Inn in College Park, Maryland, September 1938. The Inn still stands strong today, thanks, in part, to the workers of the WPA. Photo courtesy of the University of Maryland College Park Archives.)

The five-year-long recession (and yes, it's still a recession for the non-wealthy) has shown that America, as a whole, is quite willing to abandon the long-term unemployed, even if it means that the long-term unemployed will be financially ruined, emotionally destroyed, and more likely to commit suicide.


1. Recently, Republicans have been quite happy to allow extended jobless benefits to expire, and Democrats haven't had much interest in challenging that desire. (See, e.g., "The Quiet Death of Long-Term Unemployment Insurance in 2013")  

2. Recent research has shown that only about 8% of wealthy Americans agree with the statement "The federal government should provide jobs for everyone able and willing to work who cannot find a job in private employment." (See "Democracy and the Policy Preferences of Wealthy Americans")

3. In September of 2012, Republicans blocked legislation that would have created a new CCC-type program for unemployed veterans. (See "GOP Senators Block Veterans Jobs Bill")

4. Even when one Democrat--the late Senator Frank Lautenberg (NJ)--introduced legislation to create a new WPA, his fellow Democrats stood by quietly and let it die in committee.

5. Research has shown that employers discriminate against the unemployed, thereby facilitating the financial destruction and emotional ruination of many of their fellow Americans. (See, e.g., "Unemployed Face Discrimination Just One Month After Losing Their Jobs, Report Says")

6. The American people, as a whole, are not voting for political candidates who are focused on solving unemployment. Instead, they are voting (if they are voting at all) for wealthy candidates who are backed by wealthy campaign contributors. And the wealthy have little interest in solving the problem of unemployment, given that the stock market, and their finances, are doing quite well.

(New Deal policy-makers cared about the unemployed, and created work opportunities for them. The WPA employed 8.5 million different Americans between 1935 and 1943. Sadly, most modern policy-makers are more interested in campaign contributions from the wealthy, than in helping people who need jobs. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.) 

So, why have we turned our backs on our fellow citizens who are crying out for help? One reason is plutocracy. Since the wealthy are not interested in a public jobs program for people who can't find work in the private sector, and since they also bankroll our politicians, a direct job-creation program is off-the-table. A second reason is because the wealthy profit from unemployment. A large pool of unemployed workers will suppress wages and thereby increases investment returns for the wealthy.

A third reason we have turned our backs on the long-term unemployed is apathy, often fueled by intellectual laziness. A lot of people don't vote. And a lot of people who do vote, will vote for politicians who demonize the unemployed as "lazy takers." If a voter has a job, he/she may have no sympathy for the jobless. A phenomenon I have seen, over and over again, is the application of one's life experiences onto everyone else. A person will look at an unemployed person and think/say, "If I can do it, so can they!" or "If they would've worked hard like me, they'd be successful too!" 

The complexity of life is lost on many people. They simply cannot understand how different life experiences can result in different outcomes. They cannot, for example, understand how graduating from college during a period of high labor demand may result in a different outcome than graduating during a period of low labor demand. This takes too much effort, especially when a simple knee-jerk explanation is readily available and reinforced by right-wing politicians and pundits: "They're lazy! They don't want to work, they just want to collect unemployment benefits!!" Afterall all, why expend energy thinking about structural problems, when you can just blame the jobless instead, and then go about your day feeling superior?

In sum, we have turned our backs on our fellow citizens because we have a plutocratic national government, because we have an economic system that enriches the 1% when unemployment stays high & wages go down (lower labor costs = higher investment returns), and because our nation suffers from a serious case of apathy & intellectual laziness.  

(America would benefit greatly if more people studied the issues, looked at data, and turned off Hate Radio. WPA poster, courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.)

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