Today’s U.S. Labor Department report on jobs confirms what we’ve known for more than a year: We have entered a new normal for jobs, with marginal gains, marginal losses and higher levels of unemployment becoming the unfortunate norm.
It also confirms that where you live, what you do, what race you are and what level of education you’ve attained profoundly shape your employment prospects. In spite of claims of a youth unemployment crisis and ample anecdotes about a punishing job markets for recent college grads, there is – statistically – no job crisis for the college-educated, with their unemployment rate hovering around 4 percent. That contrasts with the national average of 7.9 percent and an average in the mid-teens for those with a high-school degree. For African Americans of any education level, the rate is 14.3 percent; for Hispanics, 10 percent; for Asian Americans, 4.9 percent. If you live in Nebraska or North Dakota, the jobless rate is less than 4 percent, thanks to robust prices for grains and corn and the oil and gas of the shale revolution. If you live in Oklahoma, Iowa, Minnesota or Kansas, the rate is below 6 percent. But in California, Nevada or New Jersey, it is at or above 10 percent.
Above all, the jobs report confirms that the campaign rhetoric about what the next president and Congress will do to “get jobs moving again” is hollow at best. As the numbers starkly demonstrate, the notion of an evenly distributed national jobs crisis is a fiction. Yet all the vague plans touted by Barack Obama and Mitt Romney treat the challenge of employment in 21st century America as a shared national dilemma. Unemployment is a shared affliction the way Hurricane Sandy is a shared affliction. People who live in the Northeast and Northwest may be linked by common citizenship and a shared sense of community (at least in crisis) but not by equivalent pain and suffering. Same goes for unemployment.
A genuine and realistic set of government promises would first acknowledge that any long-term approach to jobs in America should start with identifying the unemployment problem as what it is: a regional one that affects certain industries and skills and workers much more than others. The reason that hasn’t happened is because our national and state politics for the most part avoid discussing issues such as class, education and race, unless it’s in highly coded fashion. The debate about taxing the wealthy is about as close as America comes to discussing class, and that doesn’t even approach a clear-eyed discussion about who is thriving and who is not. Romney’s dismissal of the 47 percent who receive benefits from the government and pay few taxes is another way of talking about the problem, and not the most constructive.
Even more, the notion that the government can “solve” the jobs problem is a classic example of over-promising and under-delivering. The only way an administration can create 12 million jobs in four years, as Romney has promised, is if the millions now receiving unemployment benefits are turned into government employees, in the style of the New Deal-era Works Progress Administration. You could make a persuasive case for that – after all, if people are being paid not to work, why not instead pay them to work, especially given that many of those unemployed are men ‑ yes, gender plays a role, given that male unemployment is higher ‑ who have construction and heavy labor skills that would be perfectly suited to infrastructure projects that America needs. Given that neither party nor candidate has floated that idea, we are left with the hope that higher growth and better government policies will spur employment.