More Than a Number: Troubling Trends Behind the Dropping Unemployment Rate

Stephen Franklin

Members of the New York City chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War protest inequality and joblessness in front of the New York Stock Exchange last November.
So the unem­ploy­ment rate’s drop last month means we’re head­ing out of this tun­nel, right? If only it were as sim­ple as that.
There’s more to the nation’s unem­ploy­ment sit­u­a­tion than December’s decline to 8.5 per­cent job­less­ness. The fact is, the econ­o­my we live in today has become far too com­plex to be mea­sured the same way we do when we step on a scale.
That’s because a num­ber of forces have changed the work­place real­i­ty for Amer­i­can work­ers. Some of these are short-term changes, though even then, it’s not clear how their impact will play out in the long-term. And some are sig­nif­i­cant long-term changes that first began to take off and which are like­ly to affect work­ers for a long time to come. 
Young vets’ job woes
Take the wors­en­ing job plight of vet­er­ans of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, some­thing that deserves atten­tion by pol­i­cy­mak­ers. The job­less rate for these vets in Decem­ber, accord­ing to gov­ern­ment fig­ures, was 13.1 per­cent, up from 11.7 per­cent a year ago.

But the real jobs prob­lem is the one faced by young vets, the ones who have came home look­ing for new lives rather than stay­ing on in the mil­i­tary. The unem­ploy­ment rate for these vet­er­ans between 20 to 24 years old aver­aged 30 per­cent last year, up from 21 per­cent in July 2010, accord­ing to the New York Times.
This may seem to some as a short-term prob­lem, but it has the mark­ing of a dilem­ma that may linger on.
We have tra­di­tion­al­ly expect­ed vet­er­ans to find their way back into the job mar­ket, after slog­ging through a bout of job­less­ness. That is not exact­ly what hap­pened, how­ev­er, after the Viet­nam War, and the mark left from Iraq and Afghanistan may turn out to be an even far more dif­fi­cult one to overcome.
That is because the phys­i­cal and psy­cho­log­i­cal scars left on so many who took part in fight­ing that last­ed almost a decade. A large brunt of mil­i­tary ser­vice fell upon work­ers plucked out of their jobs because of their Nation­al Guard and Reserve obligations.
So, too, the long-term changes that have rip­pled across the job mar­ket con­tin­ue to play and broad­en in ways not seen a few years ago.
Pub­lic ser­vice work­ers lose their protections
The wind car­ry­ing blue-col­lar fac­to­ry jobs away for unskilled work­ers blows as strong as ever. Not only have jobs van­ished at stun­ning lev­els, but also the down­ward slide in wages and loss of ben­e­fits is a wor­ri­some omen for those left behind in the factories.
But now we can begin chart­ing the rapid­ly expand­ing down­ward slide of gov­ern­ment jobs, a process that seems like­ly to roll on for some time from Wash­ing­ton to the state cap­i­tals and to local com­mu­ni­ties, spurred on by bud­get-mind­ed Repub­li­cans and finan­cial­ly des­per­ate Democrats.
One mea­sure of the decline is the loss of state jobs across the U.S.
Employ­ment lev­els among state work­ers dropped 1.2 per­cent in 2011, accord­ing to the New York Times. That, accord­ing to the news­pa­per, is the steep­est drop since record­keep­ing began over 55 years ago.
For a long time, pub­lic work­ers were immune from such severe job cuts as well as attacks on their secu­ri­ty. But now that immu­ni­ty has van­ished, putting them in the same down­ward spin as work­ers in the pri­vate sector.
Many of these pub­lic ser­vice jobs are held by black and Lati­no work­ers and their foothold on the job mar­ket has only grown more ten­u­ous lately.
Indeed, the con­struc­tion indus­try bust, fac­to­ry-shut­downs and shrink­ing wages for most work­ers have had dis­as­trous results for black and Lati­no work­ers. As the Eco­nom­ic Pol­i­cy Insti­tute has point­ed out, the job­less rate for black and Lati­no work­ers grew dra­mat­i­cal­ly high­er and dra­mat­i­cal­ly apart, as well, from white work­ers dur­ing the last decade. 
Com­bine these forces and you have a job mar­ket not only under ter­ri­ble stress, but fac­ing stress­es not seen before. That’s why the good news con­cern­ing the job­less­ness rate leaves the nation only so much to cheer about.

Stephen Franklin is a for­mer labor and work­place reporter for the Chica­go Tri­bune, was until recent­ly the eth­nic media project direc­tor with Pub­lic Nar­ra­tive in Chica­go. He is the author of Three Strikes: Labor’s Heart­land Loss­es and What They Mean for Work­ing Amer­i­cans (2002), and has report­ed through­out the Unit­ed States and the Mid­dle East.

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