Monday, September 7, 2009

Labor Day

With the unemployment rate nearing 10%, Robert Samuelson of Newsweek probably is guilty of stating the obvious when he says this is "the bleakest Labor Day since at least the early 1980s."

He goes on to say that "cheery news is scarce." To which many long–term unemployed people may be tempted to respond, "Ya think?"

In fact, though, Samuelson observes points that seem to be ignored too often these days. At the very least, they seem to be inconvenient to bring up when the president is trying to have a "teachable moment" over beer with a policeman and a tenured college professor or when Americans are busy fighting with each other over health care reform or the president's intention to address the nation's schoolchildren.

"The implications of prolonged high unemployment — should it materialize — haven't been fully explored," Samuelson writes. (I would argue that "prolonged high unemployment" already has materialized in the lives of many Americans.) "People without work don't acquire on–the–job skills. Young college graduates are already having trouble getting work. High unemployment could depress wage gains for years. It could foster protectionism and long–term poverty."

This is uncharted territory for lots of folks. Robert Gavin writes, in the Boston Globe, that "5 million Americans have been out of work for more than six months, a record number that forecasts a slow, difficult recovery and a long period of high unemployment."

That is the assessment of Northeastern University's Center for Labor Market Studies, Gavin points out, but it is the kind of thing that many people were saying in the months before Barack Obama took office. It makes me wonder — and I'm sure it makes other people wonder — how Obama and Joe Biden could plausibly say that they "misread" the economy or that they were not given all the information they needed.

Everyone else seemed to understand the severity of the situation. Why didn't they?

They seemed to get it. Before the election, Obama sounded like he understood. He promised tax credits to employers who hired Americans in 2009 and 2010, but that promise was forgotten once he was in office.

(Today, on the first Labor Day of his presidency — and only a few days removed from the latest joblessness report that showed the unemployment rate making its way toward 10% — Obama is in Cincinnati — promoting health care reform. He's giving a major address on the subject on Wednesday. When was the last time Obama gave a major address on unemployment and talked about what the administration was doing to promote job creation?)

The Democrats in Congress who hammered out the congressional compromise on the stimulus package in February sounded like they understood the need for job creation. Turned out they were too busy including pork in an attempt to appease their Republican colleagues.

Forgive the unemployed for feeling like an afterthought.

Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis sounds like she gets it. "America's workers ... are resilient, hopeful and optimistic," she writes. "They don't want a hand out, they want to work and provide for their families."

Fine, but if nobody's hiring, it is hard to remain "resilient, hopeful and optimistic." The government has to encourage job creation in these tough times. It's fine for Solis to give displaced workers a pep talk, but what is the government doing to encourage job creation?

Talk is cheap. Paying the rent and feeding and clothing your family are not.

Maybe next Labor Day will be better. But don't count on it.

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