Which way is the unemployment rate going? It's . . . a puzzle! / Horia Varlan
Chris Bray,  January 30, 2014

Unemployment Rate Not So Bad for Employed People

Which way is the unemployment rate going? It's . . . a puzzle! / Horia Varlan
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There are those moments when a news story eats its own premise, but the people writing and editing the story don’t seem to notice: “Obama’s Puzzle: Economy Rarely Better, Approval Rarely Worse,” the New York Times announced in a headline on Monday.

Yeah, it’s a puzzle. Let’s read all the way down to the eighth paragraph:

Another problem, Democrats say, is that despite the overall economic comeback, many Americans have not seen much improvement for themselves or their family members.

The economy is awesome, it’s booming, it’s soaring higher than ever before during Obama’s presidency, and most people have seen no improvement in their economic well-being. It’s a tough contradiction to spot, for sure, but stare at that sentence until you see it.

The Times goes on to frame the challenge as, you can’t make this stuff up, a narrative problem. There is, the newspaper quotes a Democratic pollster as saying, “a strong feeling in the country that the economic deck is badly stacked in favor of those at the top, at the expense of average person.” Yeah, hmm.

So here’s the conclusion to the analysis: “One of the president’s biggest challenges this year is to change that.” No, not to change the economic deck-stacking; the president’s challenge is to change how people feel about their perception of economic deck-stacking. Tell a new tale, and the narrative construct of “the economy” is better. There may still be actual people struggling to make their actual mortgage payments, but whatever: the economy is a story.

A series of particular nonsense claims builds the frame for the general nonsense claim in which something called “the economy” is wonderfully strong. Unemployment has fallen below 7 percent, the Times regurgitates. But what would it be if the dismal labor participation rate in 2014 were the same as the labor participation rate in 2008? This is a conversation people bothered to have, once upon a time. What if, just to get crazy for a moment, lots of people still thought they had a shot at getting a job?

Even taking the numbers as gospel without accounting for the mass exodus from the labor force, there are ugly numbers to put against the general unemployment rate. Start here: the employment picture is okay unless you’re black, young, or young and black.

Meanwhile, for those who are employed, particularly at the bottom of the economy, the reality is that work is increasingly likely to be a part-time affair, or a set of part-time jobs strung together to form a clustered wage that allows for survival.

And then there’s this incredible claim in the Times story: “Exports are growing as Europe regains health.” Seriously?

The promise of the War on Poverty was that it would break structural poverty and lift people into something resembling a middle class. The author of that war came from structural poverty in the Texas hill country, and knew something about it. He was right about the need. But the project has failed, and we choose not to notice.

Take a moment to look at this very recent report from the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers. Page 2:

The percent of the population in poverty when measured to include tax credits and other benefits has declined from 25.8 percent in 1967 to 16.0 percent in 2012.

But on page 3:

A measure of “market poverty,” that reflects what the poverty rate would be without any tax credits or other benefits, rose from 27.0 percent to 28.7 percent between 1967 and 2012. Countervailing forces of increasing levels of education on the one hand, and inequality, wage stagnation, and a declining minimum wage on the other resulted in “market poverty” increasing slightly over this period. However, poverty measured taking antipoverty and social insurance programs into account fell by more than a third, highlighting the essential role that these programs have played in fighting poverty.

Structural poverty is untouched—actually, has increased a bit—but has declined overall because you can get an EBT card and an EITC check. Congratulations! There’s no ladder, but we’ll toss some food down into the basement.

The economy is booming, but many Americans have not seen much improvement for themselves or their family members. That’s an epitaph.

Chris Bray is a sometime history professor and is writing a book about the history of American military justice.

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