Last week ended with the new March job loss numbers; national unemployment is now at 8.5% after another 663,000 jobs were lost, leaving 5.1 million Americans now out of work, officially counted, since the Recession began almost a year and a half ago. We need to add, not lose, hundreds of thousands of jobs per month, just to stay even with population growth and normal turnovers. Bleak is the word as some are calling for 10% national unemployment by this year’s end.
That’s 5.1 million Americans who did not go to the Mall last weekend to buy things after cashing their paychecks, who probably stayed home and ate at home and are now wondering how they will continue paying their mortgages, their rent and their other bills. The effects continue to ripple through the worlds of retail, travel, restaurants, and all the other places in our tightly interlocked economy which are starving for dollars.
Because employment statistics are heavily, shall we say, ‘played with,’ the real numbers of all Americans who are not working, either at all or at the levels to which their background and experience would normally entitle them, are already in the 12-14% range and growing. Among minorities and the younger ranks, the numbers are higher and in states like California unemployment figures now show some 10% out of work.
How do we go about putting all these people back to work? This question must be answered and soon, before students pour out of schools for the coming Summer and flood the job market seeking seasonal work. The twenty-somethings are being particularly hard hit in this Recession. Both of my own kids are twenty-somethings and both are, thankfully, not only gainfully employed, but on career tracks, if they choose to stay in their current jobs and not go to graduate school in the coming couple of years. But, their friends and college classmates are a whole other story.
Neither my twenty-something son (25), who is in the Administration of a large downtown law firm recently racked by huge layoffs of young lawyers and staff, (but, fortunately, not my son), nor my daughter (22), who is in public relations, also downtown, with a prominent social support organization, which has not had layoffs yet, have many friends who are even close to being gainfully employed at this point. Many completed college with my two kids and then returned home to live with the ‘Rents, as they call us.
Many have huge debt already for their college loans, but have only modestly paying job prospects which do not envision them being able to pay back that hundred grand or more for their college education, some at elite colleges and universities Back East, where their elite private schools here urged them to go in what seems like another era, just a few years ago, back in the earlier 2000’s.
A number of my kids’ friends are in that vague category of ‘looking for work,’ some are artists who have real talent but less than real prospects of being able to support themselves, others are making do working in record stores, as waitresses, or in ‘internships,’ the post-graduate way of working for nothing, but making it sound very promising. It is staggering for Boomers like me and some of you to even contemplate going home after college – when I was coming of age in New England back in the late 60’s and early 70’s, my friends and I would rather have been boiled in oil than ever consider going home again.
We lived in slums in 5-bedroom apartments with a handful of roommates for $150 per month rent back then, worked at factory jobs (knowing it was not a life sentence), and it was all playful and fun for a while then in the recession of the early 70’s. Those opportunities at those prices simply do not exist in the world in which we now live.
While the idea of millions of people in their 30’s, 40’s, 50’s and 60’s being out of work and unable to support both themselves and those dependent on them is bad enough, the thought of all the twenty-somethings just starting out in such tough times with little or no prospects for work, huge college debt, and the kind of living expenses we now regard as routine, is absolutely appalling. When I talk to my own kids and their friends, I get the sense that they are all searching for something to hope for, something to lock on and aim for, amid all the economic misery abounding. It is a tough way to start out one’s working life, to say the least.
I’m stating the obvious, but, we urgently need to create meaningful work for Americans, both young and old, and we need to do it now. Masses of the unemployed just get restless, hopeless and angry (that ‘class warfare’ thing that I wrote about recently). Tragically, there is so much energy and talent that is not being utilized, while there is so much to fix right here. In the 1930’s, FDR created the WPA (the “Works Progress Administration,” renamed in 1939, to be the “Work Projects Administration”) – the federal government acted as an employment agency and put millions of the unemployed to work, running the gamut from building and maintaining roads and public works to art projects, with the WPA’s goal was to employ most of the unemployed people ‘on relief’ until the time that the economy recovered.
Harry Hopkins, testifying to Congress in 1935, explained the target of putting 3.5 million Americans to work, after explaining his calculations, Hopkins said: “there remained 5.15 million persons sixteen to sixty-five years of age, unemployed, looking for work, and able to work.” That’s roughly the same number as the 5 million Americans who have lost jobs in this current Recession, which I have sometimes, half-jokingly termed ‘Great Depression II,’ with mixed feelings.
It is time for a 21st Century WPA – big time. Let’s get people working, doing meaningful things, especially the young. The money involved is peanuts compared to the hundred and something Billion that Congress has already thrown at AIG. The impact, again, especially for the currently adrift twenty-somethings, who should be embarking on all kinds of careers and saving and spending, but who are instead stuck on the sidelines, will be a tremendous investment in all of our futures and the future of this nation.