Did We Drop the Ball on Unemployment?

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The New York Times
By: Nicholas D. Kristof
August, 27, 2011

WHEN I'm in New York or Washington, people talk passionately about debt and political battles. But in the living rooms or on the front porches here in Yamhill, Ore., where I grew up, a different specter wakes friends up in the middle of the night.

It's unemployment.

I've spent a chunk of summer vacation visiting old friends here, and I can't help feeling that national politicians and national journalists alike have dropped the ball on jobs. Some 25 million Americans are unemployed or underemployed -- that's more than 16 percent of the work force -- but jobs haven't been nearly high enough on the national agenda.

When Americans are polled about the issue they care most about, the answer by a two-to-one margin is jobs. The Boston Globe found that during President Obama's Twitter "town hall" last month, the issue that the public most wanted to ask about was, by far, jobs. Yet during the previous two weeks of White House news briefings, reporters were far more likely to ask about political warfare with Republicans.

(I'm an offender, too: I asked President Obama a question at the Twitter town hall, and it was a gotcha query about his negotiations with Republicans. I'm sorry that I missed the chance to push him on the issue that Americans care most about.)

A study by National Journal in May found something similar: newspaper articles about "unemployment" apparently fell over the last two years, while references to the "deficit" soared.

When I'm back on the family farm in Yamhill, our very closest neighbor is one of those 25 million. Terry Maggard worked on a crew detecting underground gas, electrical or cable lines, and after 15 years on the job he was earning $20 an hour. Then at the outset of the recession in late 2008 his employer fired him and the other old-timers, and hired younger workers -- who earned only $9 or $10 an hour.

Terry has been knocking on doors everywhere, including at McDonald's, but nobody wants a 56-year-old man. "The only call I got in two years was one asking if I could be a French chef," he recalled, laughing. "I said 'Oui.' "

Mais non, the chef's job did not come through. So although Terry earns some money breeding Pomeranians, his wife is now the main income earner. She worries that her job at a community college may be in jeopardy as well, and their standard of living has plummeted.

"It's been a 100 percent change in my lifestyle," Terry said. "I used to grill rib-eye steaks on the barbecue. Now I grill hot dogs. And I can't tell you the last time I went out for a meal."

My next neighbor beyond the Maggards is Elmer McKoon, 64, who used to work full time in construction, and more recently as a janitor. His company slashed the staff in 2008, but a kind boss kept Elmer working one night a week so he could keep his health insurance.

Another friend, Jeff, who was fired this year after 28 years in his job, notes that the biggest impact isn't the economic hit but the psychological one. Jeff, who didn't want his full name used for fear it would hurt his job hunt, said he wakes up and feels a stab in his gut as he realizes that he has nowhere to go that day -- and has lost his family's health insurance as well.

"I don't have the career that I know, and if someone gets sick then I'm homeless as well," he said.

Unless more people are working, paying taxes and making mortgage payments, it's difficult to see how we revive the economy or address our long-term debt challenge. While debt is a legitimate long-term problem, the urgent priority should be getting people back to work. America now has more than four unemployed people for each opening. And the longer people are out of work, the less likely it is that they will ever work again.

President Obama is saying the right things lately about creating jobs. But he is saying them far too meekly, and his jobs agenda seems anemic -- while the Republican Congress is saying the wrong things altogether.

There are no quick fixes to joblessness, but Washington could temporarily make federal money available to pay for teachers who are otherwise being laid off. We could increase spending on service programs like AmeriCorps that have far more applicants than spots.

We could extend the payroll tax cut, which expires at the end of December. Astonishingly, Republicans in Congress seem to be lined up instinctively against this basic economic stimulus. Could the Tea Party actually favor tax reductions for billionaires but not for working Americans? Could we have found a tax increase the Republican Party favors?

Mr. Obama, with 25 million Americans hurting, will you fight -- really fight! -- to put jobs at the top of the national agenda?

I invite you to comment on this column on my blog, On the Ground. Please also join me on Facebook and Google+, watch my YouTube videos and follow me on Twitter.

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This page contains a single entry by CFED published on August 29, 2011 3:42 PM.

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