Thursday, March 17, 2011

Newsflash: Unemployment is the Fault of the Unemployed

Of all the things that people without jobs dislike, it’s being told they aren’t doing enough to find work. Recently the Washington Post published yet another article blaming the victim. This time the Post came up with a new angle. Instead of honestly citing the real reasons people don’t find new jobs, the article describes a man who has decided to sit out the recession and let his wife and his savings support him. The article then goes on to say that when the economy recovers, this selfish man will skew the jobless rate by daring to look for work again---and thus increasing the total number of the unemployed again. Guess that’s what all the rest of us are doing, right? Not so fast, Washington Post. Over 200 angry comments later, here’s part of one that sums up the true situation:

We all know the unemployment rate is worse than stated, that older workers can't get hired, that recent college grads are doing menial jobs, and that contract and part time is becoming the gold standard of hiring for the HR stooges. [by veerle1]

It’s a cheap shot for an employed journalist to tell the rest of us we ought to try a lot harder to find a job. There aren’t enough jobs for all the people who want to work. I see people all the time who have tried everything they can think of to find a job. These are the ones at the bottom of the economic spectrum, people who are not too overeducated to work at Wal-Mart or at a Target distribution center, people who have lost their factory jobs to outsourcing. Clever resumes, smart business attire, and classy answers to trick interview questions have nothing to do with the kinds of jobs they’re seeking. They can’t get hired because there are no jobs available, not because they don’t know how to wow an HR rep. So they live on their savings and on the kindness of family members, plus the odd short-term gig and some government handouts. Are these people comfortably sitting out the recession? No. Do they get counted as unemployed? Only if they still get unemployment benefits. If they don’t, they aren’t counted. This method of counting the unemployed has never made sense, but short of going door-to-door, economists have few ways of measuring unemployment. Even so, this article posits a large potential workforce that lost jobs and isn’t trying to find jobs.

I am not a statistician, but even I know that if you intend to find the people who don’t want a job and are not looking for one, you investigate categories of people such as those aging out of the workforce, those voluntarily leaving it to stay at home and raise a family, those whose medical conditions force them out of the workforce permanently, and so on. Not by citing anecdotal evidence that some guys are letting their wives support them. Which BTW there is nothing wrong with doing, other than trusting that his wife will still have a job by this time next year.

I also don’t agree with the idea that “discouraged” workers have stopped looking for jobs. The reality is that many people have knocked on every door, exhausted all their contacts, imposed enough on the goodwill of their former coworkers, and used up all help from other sources. So they've moved on as a matter of daily life. They may no longer spend forty hours per week trying to find a job, but they’re still interested and still looking. Any hint of an open position is followed up. To blame people who don’t keep beating their heads against the wall of a bad economy is both silly and cruel.


EilisFlynn said...

I ignore those articles by amply paid journos. I remember reading a book of personal finance by someone who was the investment reporter for a Major Newspaper, who explained she made more than $100K a year but she was horribly in debt because she liked new clothes and impulsive vacations AND her parents were PAYING HER MORTGAGE, but she was qualified to tell the reader what they should do! Hell no. said...

Paul Krugman adds to this here.

I found nothing new or interesting in this article. Maybe I'm dense, but I didn't find the tone to be blaming. The man in the article just seemed to be waiting out the storm, I didn't see any implied criticism. It seemed to me that any criticism was being directed at the strange way that labor statistics are generated. As a homemaker I'm not unemployed, until I decide that I want an outside the home job, at which point I magically become unemployed. The real issue is that the funky nature of labor statistics is not common knowledge.

All this said, it's the same old riff, Europeans have been dealing with this for decades. It ignores the simple truth that the period of growth and prosperity after WWII was abnormal. The problems the US has faced since the 60's is just the rest of the world healing from the war. Duh! Everything else is just extrapolating on that theme.