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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Unemployment: The Broader Context

At the New Yorker, George Packer offers a vivid reminder that unemployment rates significantly understate the number of people struggling to survive in this economy, and requiring a bit of help from their government, if it deigns to offer it:

In the midst of the debt crisis in Washington, D.C., Danny Hartzell backed a Budget rental truck up to a no-frills apartment building that is on a strip of motels and pawnshops in Tampa, Florida. He had been laid off by a packaging plant during the financial crisis of 2008, had run through his unemployment benefits, and had then taken a part-time job stocking shelves at Target in the middle of the night, for $8.50 an hour. His daughter had developed bone cancer, and he was desperate to make money, but his hours soon dwindled to four or five a week. In April, Hartzell was terminated. His last biweekly paycheck was for a hundred and forty dollars, after taxes. “It’s kind of like I’ve fallen into that non-climbable-out-of rut,” he said. “If you can’t climb out, why not move?”
On the afternoon of July 1st, Hartzell was loading the family’s possessions into the rental truck–and brushing off the roaches that had infested the apartment, so that the bugs wouldn’t make the move, too–when a letter arrived from the State of Florida. Four days earlier, Governor Rick Scott, a Republican backed by the Tea Party, had signed a law making it harder for Floridians to collect jobless benefits, and the letter informed Hartzell that he was ineligible for new benefits after losing his job at Target. “I guess it’s just all water under the bridge at this point anyway, being that we’re going to stake a new claim,” Hartzell told his fifteen-year-old son. “Right, Brent?” Then the Hartzells drove ten hours north, to rural Georgia, where no job or house awaited them–only an old friend Hartzell had reconnected with on Facebook, and the hope of a fresh start.
On the day the family moved, there were officially 14.1 million unemployed Americans, or 9.2 per cent of the workforce. Hartzell himself probably isn’t counted in these statistics. In recent years, he has fallen into the more nebulous categories of the part-time employed, the long-term unemployed, and the “marginally attached”–the no-longer-looking unemployed. Economists report that the broader, and more accurate, unemployment rate is 16.2 per cent. Three years after the economic meltdown, nearly one in six Americans are out of work.

This tale of tragedy is totally aside from the number of Americans who have jobs but whose employers are using the leverage supplied by the economy to keep their wages and benefits low, and their mouths shut. It’s a perfect environment for the bullying of middle-class working Americans, in the workplace and in state legislatures and in Congress. We are a long, long way from anything resembling what used to be called “The American Dream,” and you don’t have to be a big believer in class warfare to note that all the abstract arguments for austerity and limited government are on behalf of people who have for many years cruised through hard times doing very well, without much thought for their fellow-countrymen in this nation conservatives claim to adore.

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