By BOB HERBERT
Nancy Pelosi, at lunch, was making the point that this latest recession was not a typical cyclical downturn.
“This is a different creature,” she said, “and it demands that we see it in a different way.”
The evidence is stark. More than 44 percent of unemployed Americans have been out of work for six months or longer, the highest rate since World War II. Perhaps more chilling is a new analysis by the Pew Economic Policy Group that found that nearly a quarter of the nation's 15 million unemployed workers have been jobless for a year or more.
Everything in Washington is a heavy lift. The successful struggle to pass last year's stimulus package fended off an even worse economic disaster, and the Democrats have managed to enact their health care initiative. But the biggest threat to the health of the economy -- corrosive, intractable, demoralizing unemployment -- is still with us. And the deficit zealots, growing in strength, would do nothing to counter this scourge.
Ms. Pelosi acknowledged that “there is always a calibration” between concerns about deficit reduction and the spending that is necessary to substantially reduce unemployment. But she believes there are several fronts on which Congress and the Obama administration can -- in fact, must -- still move forward: on infrastructure and green energy initiatives, for example, and assistance to states hobbled with fiscal crises of their own.
The crippling nature of the joblessness that has moved through the society like a devastating virus has gotten neither the attention nor the response that it warrants. One of the more striking findings of the Pew study was that a college education has not been much of a defense against long-term unemployment.
“Twenty-one percent of unemployed workers with a bachelor's degree have been without work for a year or longer,” the report found, “compared to 27 percent of unemployed high school graduates and 23 percent of unemployed high school dropouts.”
Whole segments of the U.S. population are being left behind, even as economists are touting modest improvements in some categories of economic data, like the creation of 162,000 jobs in March. Jobless workers who are 55 or older are having a brutal time of it. Thirty percent have been jobless for a year or more.
Blue-collar workers are suffering through a crisis characterized as a “depression” by the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston. Blue-collar job losses during the so-called Great Recession surpassed 5.5 million, and many of those jobs will never be seen again. This disastrous situation will not be corrected, as analysts at the center have noted, “by a modest recovery of the U.S. economy over the next few years.”
We need to pay less attention to the Tea Party yahoos and more attention to the very real suffering of individuals and families trapped in an employment crisis that is unprecedented in the post-Depression era. I've been in inner-city neighborhoods where residents will tell you that hardly anyone at all is working at a regular job.
The recession only worsened an employment picture that was already bleak. In a speech at the Harvard Kennedy School last week, the A.F.L.-C.I.O. President Richard Trumka spoke movingly about Americans “trying to hold on to a good job in a grim game of musical chairs where every time the music stopped, there were fewer good jobs and more people trying to get and keep one.”
More than eight million jobs vanished during the recession, a period during which three million new jobs would have been needed to keep up with the growth of the population. “That's 11 million missing jobs,” said Mr. Trumka.
Right now there is no plan that can even remotely be expected to result in job creation strong enough to rescue the hard-core groups being left behind. These include: long-term unemployed workers who are older; blue-collar workers of all ages; and younger people in the big cities, in the rust belt and in rural areas who are jobless and not well educated.
It is not possible to put together a thriving, self-sustaining economy while so many are being left out. As Mr. Trumka noted, “President Obama's economic recovery program has done a lot of good for working people -- creating or saving more than two million jobs. But the reality is that two million jobs is just 18 percent of the hole in our labor market.”
Ms. Pelosi spoke about “jobs creation” with a tone of urgency and commitment and seemed undeterred by the fact that a big new jobs bill seems hardly feasible in the current political environment.
“You can do smaller pieces,” she said. “You can break the task up into segments, into discrete pieces of legislation. If size is a problem, we should not let it be an obstacle.”