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The unemployment emergency

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By Eugene Robinson
Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The good news is that unemployment has fallen to "only" 9.5 percent. The bad news is that the jobless rate is down only because so many people have given up hope of finding work. Perversely, the jobless who aren't actively looking for jobs are not counted as "unemployed." Perhaps there should be a new category: "mired in existential despair." If anyone in Washington wants to know why people in the hinterlands are angry, one simple answer is that our political leaders seem to be so calculating and unmoved about the parlous state of the economy.

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The disheartening employment figures released Friday quickly became fodder for the kind of political to-and-fro that has become standard operating procedure. President Obama quickly put his spin on the numbers, noting that the private sector added 83,000 jobs in June. The president's Republican opponents noted that overall, the economy lost 125,000 jobs -- taking into account not just the private-sector gain but the end of 225,000 temporary jobs for census workers.

Last month, it was the other way around. The overall number, showing what happened in May, indicated a healthy-looking gain in jobs -- so that was what Obama wanted to talk about. But the increase reflected mostly census hiring, with the private sector adding a paltry 41,000 jobs -- which was the number the Republicans wanted to highlight.

All the spinning and counterspinning drives people crazy. And why shouldn't it? The employment numbers aren't just a monthly set of partisan talking points. They represent actual lives. They represent mortgages that might not be paid and college educations that have to be deferred; they tally mental health crises and broken marriages. Those sterile, emotionless figures speak of pain and anxiety. They mock our faith in the American dream.

Let me put it in terms that Washington understands: The party that begins to treat the unemployment crisis with the hair-on-fire urgency that it deserves is the party that will do well in November.

In the past, a steep fall into recession has often led to an equally steep climb back to prosperity. Clearly, that's not the case this time. In relatively short order, the economy lost about 7 million jobs. So far this year, we've gained back more than 600,000 -- not bad, given that in early 2009 we were shedding that many jobs each month, but not nearly enough to have the kind of impact the nation can really feel.

The debate among economists about whether or not this will prove to be a "double-dip" recession is beside the point. For most people, this feels more like one long, uninterrupted dip -- with no end in sight. Adding 83,000 private-sector jobs in June sounds like something of an accomplishment, until you realize that the U.S. economy has to add more than 125,000 jobs a month just to accommodate the natural growth of the workforce. With a gain of 83,000 jobs, we actually lost ground.

Our political leaders know that unemployment is on their constituents' minds, so they talk about it. A lot. But we're not seeing either party show the kind of courage that's really needed.

Republicans block an extension of unemployment benefits, rail about the deficit and complain that Democrats don't understand that economic renewal will come when the private sector is unleashed. The problem is that since Republicans are in the minority, they have to work with the Democrats to get anything done. I suspect that their strategy -- standing on the sidelines and yelling, "The Democrats are doing it all wrong!" -- will not win as much favor from voters as the GOP hopes.

Democrats, on the other hand, do have the power to enact an agenda. But individual members of Congress act as if they are more concerned about their own electoral prospects than about bringing those unemployment numbers down. If a second economic stimulus is the answer, then that's what Democrats should do. If the answer is something else, fine. But they should know that whether they call themselves progressives or Blue Dogs or whatever, voters see them as one party and will hold them accountable.

Washington gets all excited when someone commits an embarrassing or impolitic gaffe. Beyond the Beltway, people cannot understand why our leaders can't be similarly focused and energetic about the most tragic spasm of economic dislocation in eight decades.

The writer will be online to chat with readers at 1 p.m. Eastern time Tuesday. Submit your questions and comments before or during the discussion.


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