Jobless Data Shows Need for Jobs Program

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One of the worst aspects of the ongoing healthcare reform imbroglio (aside from the fact that it's likely to produce terrible policy) is that for last last few months it has pushed most other issues off the national political agenda. Chief among them is the swelling rate of joblessness in the United States, which has not received nearly the amount of attention it might have otherwise from the media and policymakers.

On Friday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the official jobless rate surpassed 10% in 14 states and the District of Columbia in August, and that unemployment remained steady or grew in 34 of 50 states. Among the hardest hit states are Michigan (15.2%), Nevada (13.2%), Rhode Island (12.8), and California (12.2%), while my own state of New York clocked in at a healthier, but still bad, 9%.

Speaking of New York, the Fiscal Policy Institute released a study last week on unemployment and economic insecurity in the Empire State, and the numbers are rather grim. Joblessness has increased by almost 400,000 since early last year, and unemployment in New York City has jumped to 10.3%. While the official statewide unemployment rate is at 9%, the "real" rate in the first half of 2009 (taking into account underemployment and workers who have stopped looking for jobs) has soared to 14.1%. Black and Hispanic workers have been hit even harder. The official unemployment rate for black men stands at a terrible 18.3%, but the real rate is a horrifying 27%. The real unemployment rate for Hispanics is about 18%.

The rest of the study contains valuable data on income, inequality, poverty, and other measurements, and it's well worth reading. It goes without saying that those numbers are similarly depressing.

Even though Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has announced that the recession is all but over, these employment numbers are not going to to improve anytime soon. All signs point to yet another jobless recovery, and as Doug Henwood recently pointed out, during this downturn private sector employers have been on a near-total hiring strike. It's going to be incredibly tough for the millions of Americans who have lost their jobs during the past two years to get back on their feet again.

So what is to be done? These numbers make it abundantly clear that Congress and the Obama administration need to invest in a second stimulus package centered arond a major jobs program that can provide the employment that the private sector is not willing or able to provide. This could involve not just the kinds of projects contained in the first stimulus package (rail, water, retrofitting, and other infrastructure projects) but also jobs in childcare, public works, and other services that would not only put people to work but make the benefits of government spending immediately visible, as has not been the case with stimulus funding so far.

Yes, winning a program like this in the near future seems about as likely as the Knicks ever making the playoffs again (translation for non-sports fans: not very likely). But since the unemployment problem will be a major concern for the foreseeable future, it's something a winning political coalition could potentially be built around in the longer term.

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