Presidential election season is officially underway, and the next Chief Executive – hopefully, a Democrat – will have to deal with an economy that, while recovering, is still less than stellar. March‟s jobs report was underwhelming: the federal government stated only 126,000 jobs were created after a year- long streak of monthly job figures north of 200,000. Meanwhile, the situation of the long-term unemployed – people out of work 27 weeks or more – has only slightly improved. Although the numbers in that group have dropped, 2.6 million people are still long-term unemployed, far higher than before the Great Recession began. That‟s a lot of wasted potential.
Despite all the rhetoric coming from the media and politicians asserting that the U.S. economy is on the upswing, many of our citizens are not feeling it. Wages are still stagnant for those who are working. Most of the gains made from the recovery have gone to the very richest. And the official employment numbers don‟t tell the whole story. For instance, the labor force participation rate is 62.7% – the lowest figure in nearly 40 years. Many people are either working part-time and want a full-time job, or have simply given up trying to find a job at all. They are not counted in the official unemployment rate of 5.5%. (Neither are people in prison, for that matter).
I can certainly attest to the problem of long-term unemployment, because I have been suffering bouts of unemployment for years, even before the 2008 financial crash (remember George W. Bush‟s “jobless recovery?”). For four blissful months last year, I had a full-time job on a state Senate campaign. Since that campaign ended last June, I have yet to land another job, despite continuing to send out resumes and leveraging my network of friends and acquaintances. There are others I know in the same situation. Unfortunately, the stigma of being unemployed for so long runs so deep in our society that some employers are openly discriminating against people who show long gaps in their employment histories. Then add to that difficulty, the unique challenges that certain groups – women, people of color, the disabled, people over 50 – have when trying to land jobs. For example, blacks, who still face rampant employment discrimination, don‟t have the same access as whites to the kinds of social networks that connect people to the best and highest paying jobs within the “hidden job market.” Decades of institutionalized racism and residential segregation have limited blacks‟ access to good employment opportunities.
Despite these challenges within American employment, the problem of long-term unemployment is getting little attention, aside from political fights over the length of time for unemployment benefits. I feel that those of us who are still unemployed and want to work are being left to twist in the wind. “Fighting for $15” minimum wage and talking up the “plight of working families” are great issues, but what about the folks who can only dream of getting a wage at all? This is where the government must come in. When the market fails, it is the government that must become “the employer of last resort.”
Democrats once trumpeted that principle from the days of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who established the famed Works Progress Administration that put thousands to work during the Great Depression. But, today, our party seems too timid to promote “muscular government,” and won‟t effectively push back against the ridiculous idea that “government doesn‟t create jobs (tell any civil servant that they aren‟t actually doing a „job‟).” That timidity is the result of 40 years of American society being bombarded with bad right-wing economic theories and policies. The WPA was a successful program, and so was another federal jobs program in the 1970s, called the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act. CETA trained unemployed people and provided them with jobs in civil service. Other countries have similar programs. CCDC member Darryl Cherness told me about CETA. Eventually, CETA and a subsequent successor were repealed in the 1990s. But we need such a program again. The recalcitrant Republican Congress likely won‟t implement it, so our California state Legislature should.