Permanent army of the unemployed

From the September-October 2011 issue of News & Letters:

Permanent army of the unemployed

Detroit–The unemployment crisis is reaching far into the future. Whereas many government and private economists have been predicting that the economy will pick up in the next quarter or the next year, new reports conclude that in 50 U.S. metropolitan areas, it will take at least a decade to regain employment lost since the 2008 economic meltdown.

In Detroit, which lost 323,400 jobs, the projection is that it will be 2021 before those jobs are recovered; in Los Angeles, which lost 537,100 jobs, the recovery year is projected to be 2018–and the data do not include the number of new jobs that would have to be created to fill the needs of new workers coming into the job market. The number of jobs required to hire new workers entering the workforce is l00,000 a month, a figure that is unlikely to be met under existing conditions.

What this means is that “the permanent army of the unemployed,” that Marx analyzed as being a consistent feature of capitalism, has at no time been more prevalent than today. This is what is keeping the political leaders in this country–from President Obama to Congress and state and local politicians–awake at night as they grapple with the reality of over 20 million Americans unemployed or underemployed.

But even this 20 million is inaccurate when tens of thousands of workers are not counted, both workers unemployed for years who have given up on getting a job, and youth who can’t get a job.

The present official 9.1% unemployment rate will not change much, if at all, and there is no time, even in the distant future, that anyone is predicting that the previous unemployment rate of 4.4% before the meltdown will be reached. As a matter of fact, the Washington politicians are now talking about raising the “normal unemployment rate” to 7% or 8%.

Under present conditions of dismal job growth and a housing market consistently losing value due to foreclosures and lack of construction, both major growth factors under capitalism, there is nothing but increasing misery in store for unemployed workers and their families. For many millions, the only thing keeping them from literal starvation and homelessness is their unemployment compensation.

This too is beginning to create nightmares for national and local politicians, because extended unemployment compensation, even after being extended many times to 99 weeks (almost two years), is to expire at the end of 2011. Government payments for all of its benefit programs amounted to $2.3 trillion in 2010, up from $1.7 trillion in 2007.

This reflects the increasing dependency of millions of Americans on government payouts due to the economic meltdown and the virtual stalling of the economy, over two years after the Great Recession was officially declared dead. For those unemployed during this period, it has been a Great Depression all over again.

These economic and social dislocations, along with the disgust with a paralyzed government incapable of solving the crises, are generating much discontent among the whole population, but especially among workers and their families. Fears are growing that this discontent cannot be controlled. Proposals for another extension of unemployment benefits are an attempt to keep the lid on what may become a social explosion that challenges the continuing existence of the status quo.

–Andy Phillips

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