Unemployment rates were “little changed” in March 2013 – they were either holding steady or dropping by a tenth of a percentage point or so. The unemployment rate dropped from 7.7 to 7.6 percent representing a steady, if painstakingly slow, decrease. This declining unemployment rate was reported with some circumspection because even as the rate dropped, nearly half a million people left the labor market, presumably because they could not find work. Further, in March, the economy generated a scant 88,000 jobs, fewer than in any of the prior nine months. An economy that many enjoy, describing as “recovering,” has not yet recovered enough to generate enough jobs to keep up with population increases.
Of course, there are variations in the unemployment rate, which is 6.7 percent for Whites, but 13.3 percent for African Americans. Hidden unemployment pushes the actual White rate up to 13.8 percent and the Black rate to 24.2 percent. More than 4.6 million Americans have been out of work for more than 27 weeks.
I parse these numbers on the first Friday of each month and note the vacillations in these rates. In the past four years, we have seen a downward drift in rates, but it neither been as rapid or as inclusive as we might like. We know that, in spite of talk of economic recovery, job creation is stagnant, not keeping up with increases in the population. In no month have we created the 300,000 jobs we need to “catch up” and push unemployment rates down.
We should pay attention to unemployment vacillations, but we might also consider the human cost of unemployment. Those who are unemployed experience malaise, displacement, and often depression. This malaise, or worse, affects dynamics in families, workplaces, and communities. Some workers exhale when they dodge the bullet of a layoff. Next, they inhale when they realize that, thanks to layoffs, their workload will increase. In families and communities, the unemployment of just one person has a series of unintended costs for those close to them.
Speaking to the National Association of Black Social Workers conference last week, I reminded them that social workers are among those who bear the burden of unemployment. These committed public servants work with the threat of layoffs in their worksites, given sequestration and state budget cuts. Yet they are also challenged to advise those who have experienced the fate they may have to grapple with themselves. As employment is cut among social workers, others are forced to take on larger caseloads. Unless some of these social workers are superhuman, there will be clients who will slip between the cracks.
Heretofore, we have mostly looked at unemployment data as a reflection of the number of jobs our economy generates. We’ve also looked at those who hold them, those who lose them, and what this means in terms of poverty, education, and community health. We could expand our understanding of the employment situation if we looked at those who bear its burden.
There are politicians who rail that people are unemployed because they are lazy. The fact is people are unemployed because the economy is not generating enough jobs. The French philosopher, Albert Camus, mused, “Without work all life is rotten.” Everybody wants to be useful; and until “use” is defined as something other than paid employment, many will feel marginalized because of their vocation situation.
When unemployed, people hear about our “recovering” economy. They wonder what is wrong with them. We all need to wonder what is wrong with an economy that generates such unemployment. We need to wonder about an economy that has soaring stock prices and robust corporate profits, while so many individuals are struggling financially. We need to do more to include those at the margins into the vitality of our “recovering” economy. And we need to understand that if one in four African Americans and one is six of the overall population, experiences unemployment, this is not a personal problem, but a societal one. Will our society fix it, or let it roll? And who pays?
Julianne Malveaux is a Washington, D.C.-based economist and writer. She is President Emerita of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C.