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Weekly Audit: The unemployment epidemic

On Friday, we learned that the U.S. unemployment rate officially broke 10% for the first time since the early Reagan years. This is about as bad as it gets for a modern, developed economy. No economic force takes a heavier toll on a society than rampant joblessness, and few personal setbacks take a deeper psychological toll than being out of a job for months on end. If Congress and President Obama don’t do something to create jobs fast, both are going to pay a hefty political price when next year’s mid-term elections roll around.

So how bad is it? In October, the economy shed 190,000 jobs and the unemployment rate jumped from 9.8% to 10.2%. That percentage is the most optimistic reading of the labor market in Friday’s report. If you take people who want full-time jobs but are settling for part-time work, then add those who have simply given up on finding a job, the rate is a massive 17.5%.

The problem is not that either Obama or Congress have failed to act on the problem, but rather that they have not done enough. When Congress was moving on Obama’s $787 billion economic stimulus package back in February, we were shedding upwards of 700,000 jobs a month. So the stimulus package has worked—it’s probably helped keep unemployment from jumping to 12% or 13%. But this is cold comfort to the nation’s 15.7 million unemployed, 5.6 million of whom have been out of a job for more than six months.

As Robert Reich notes for Salon, Obama’s economic advisers dramatically underestimated how bad things would get when they crafted the stimulus package. As a result, the package was too small and unemployment has remained high. Obama needs to go back to Congress and demand more economic relief funding. Republicans will continue to whine about government spending to excuse their obstructionism, of course, and conservative Democrats will probably start sweating, too—Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NE) helped cut back the original stimulus bill in February to help boost his “centrist” credentials. This of course had nothing to do with economics or policy. Government spending is what saves the economy in a recession. In a downturn as severe as this one, it takes a lot of spending to turn things around.

But as Reich notes, Nelson and his cohorts will have a lot more to worry about in the 2010 elections if the economy doesn’t actually improve over the next year. And few economists think it will. The Congressional Budget Office, which is run by a conservative economist named Douglas Elmendorf, projects an average unemployment rate of over 10% in 2010. That’s worse than this year. Democrats from swing districts need to support economic relief packages. Continued economic malaise will severely hurt them at the polls.

Congress finally took some action on joblessness on Thursday, voting to extend unemployment benefits for an additional 14 weeks. If we want the economy to recover, we need people to spend money, but if people aren’t working, they don’t have any money to spend. So the government cuts people checks to help them get by and stimulate a demand for goods and services. Even most conservative economists thinks this is a good idea.

But as Kevin Drum notes for Mother Jones, the soundness of the policy did nothing to prevent Republicans from fighting the effort to extend benefits tooth-and-nail. The bill had to overcome three—that’s right, three—filibusters in the Senate from Republicans, who held up the bill for weeks for no apparent reason. In a blog post for The Washington Monthly, Steve Benen explains the economic cost of this obstructionism: In the weeks of delay, 200,000 people looking for work stopped receiving benefits.

But extending unemployment benefits will not solve our economic woes. The total program is just $2.4 billion, a drop in the bucket compared to the trillions of dollars the government put up to salvage Wall Street. $2.4 billion is not enough to reverse the unemployment trend. Cutting the checks certainly helps, but as Matthew Rothschild emphasizes for The Progressive, we need an economic policy that actually puts people back to work. We’ve known for months that the stimulus was too small and watched the labor market continue to deteriorate. We need more than tweaks at the economic margins, we need a robust job creation plan.

As Stephen Franklin notes for Working In These Times, we already know that the recession has created a significant jump in the nation’s poverty rate. According to official government statistics, the rate climbed from 12.5% to 13.2% in 2008, the largest increase since 1991. But the National Academy of Science thinks the government statistics are misleading, as they account for rising costs associated with medical care, transportation, child care and different regional living standards, as Franklin notes. Taking these factors into account, the National Academy of Sciences calculates the actual poverty rate to be 15.8%. That’s an additional 7 million people living in poverty, for a total of over 47 million. That’s more than the entire population of the New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Philadelphia metropolitan areas combined. What’s worse, we don’t have poverty statistics for this year, when the most severe economic damage was been dealt.

Workers are facing tough economic prospects around the world. Writing for The Nation, Kristina Rizga details Latvia’s economic turmoil. Just like the US, overexcited bankers in Latvia inflated a massive real estate bubble that took down the entire economy when it burst. But with the bubble burst, much of the country is now out of a job and stuck with a mortgage worth far less than what they paid for it. It’s almost exactly the same story we’ve seen at home.

No domestic economic problem is more pressing than our epic levels of unemployment. We need another round of stimulus to get people working again. If not, we’ll see the same public unrest here as in Eastern Europe.

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