Johnetta Thurston has been out of work since 2011. (Bonne Jo Mount/The Washington Post))
Johnetta Thurston has been out of work since 2011. (Bonne Jo Mount/The Washington Post))

We need to stop talking so much about income inequality and start talking more about economic insecurity. And the reason why was summed up in the arresting photo of Johnetta Thurston on the front page of the Jan. 11 edition of The Post. A single tear runs down the dignified face of an American who went from white-collar security with full-time employment to unending unemployment starting in 2011. Thurston has done a lot to make herself attractive to prospective employers, from getting management certificates to going to graduate school. To no avail. The economic insecurity of millions of Americans plainly and painfully apparent in Thurston’s face is what needs our attention.

Don’t get me wrong: Income inequality is serious and must be addressed. That the top one percent is richer now in the aftermath of the 2008 financial implosion is evidence that our system is completely out of whack. But the phrase “income inequality” rings of wealth redistribution that allows Republicans and others to dismiss any attempt to deal with the gross inequities as a socialist plot to destroy the United States of America. The phrase also seems to ignore or not account for the cycle of economic insecurity that has ensnared working Americans for decades now.

A Census report released last week showed that being poor is a fluid status. Or, as The Post’s Brad Plummer more vividly described the results, while the official poverty rate was 15 percent in 2012, “a much, much larger subset of people slip in and out of poverty all the time.”

For instance: Between 2009 and 2011, nearly one third of the country — 31.6 percent — fell below that official poverty line for at least two months. By contrast, only 3.5 percent of the U.S. population remained poor for that entire period. Both of those figures rose after the recession. . .  .

The median length of time spent below the poverty line also increased, from 5.7 months before the recession to 6.6 months after.

There was also a fair bit of churn. In the first two months of 2009, there were 37.9 million people in poverty. About one third of them, 12.6 million, managed to escape poverty by 2011 — although many were still hovering close to the poverty line. And that improvement was counterbalanced by the fact that 13.5 million people who weren’t poor in 2009 became poor by 2011.

(Center on Budget and Policy Priorities)
(Center on Budget and Policy Priorities)

The latest round of unemployment numbers speak to the economic insecurity of Americans. The December jobless report showed that 4 million people have been out of work for six months or longer. The Post reported, “They account for more than one-third of the country’s unemployed workers — down from the post-recession peak but still higher than at any other time in the past 60 years.”

The December report also showed that the unemployment rate dropped from 7 percent to 6.7 percent not because of new jobs but because folks stopped looking for work. As Eugene Robinson reminds us today, “[I]ndividuals receiving unemployment checks are legally required to look for work.” But Congress’s failure to extend unemployment benefits last month made that more difficult. When the federal help expired on Dec. 28, an estimated 1.3 million Americans lost that emergency relief. According to an analysis of data from the labor department and the White House Council of Economic Advisers by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, that number could jump to 4.9 million by the end of 2014.

No doubt they will be among the thousands of people who swamp job fairs for the relatively few positions available. When two Wal-Mart stores opened in Washington, D.C., last month, they received more than 23,000 applications for 600 jobs. This situation has repeated itself across the country for years now. These aren’t lazy people. Or people who don’t know the meaning of work. Or people who would rather subsist on a government check than thrive on an employer’s direct deposit.

The commemoration of the 50th anniversary on the War on Poverty has me wondering optimistically if Washington is ready to tackle economic insecurity. For instance, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) gave a thoughtful speech at the American Enterprise Institute last week that expressed the same concern for declining economic mobility that we have heard from President Obama in speech after speech.

Rubio on Jan. 7: Yes, the cashier at a fast food chain makes significantly less than the company’s CEO. The problem we face is not simply the gap in pay between them, but rather that too many of those cashiers are stuck in the same job for years on end, unable to find one that pays better. And it is this lack of mobility, not just income inequality, that we should be focused on. . . .

Obama on Dec. 4: But we know that people’s frustrations run deeper than these most recent political battles.  Their frustration is rooted in their own daily battles — to make ends meet, to pay for college, buy a home, save for retirement.  It’s rooted in the nagging sense that no matter how hard they work, the deck is stacked against them. . . . [T]hey experience in a very personal way the relentless, decades-long trend that I want to spend some time talking about today.  And that is a dangerous and growing inequality and lack of upward mobility that has jeopardized middle-class America’s basic bargain — that if you work hard, you have a chance to get ahead.

Sure, they come at it from opposite ideological corners. But acknowledging that they have the same motivations could provide part of the foundation for the tough, honest and necessary conversations required of Democrats and Republicans to bring economic security to a nation that hasn’t seen it or felt it in years.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @Capehartj

Jonathan Capehart is a member of the Post editorial board and writes about politics and social issues for the PostPartisan blog.