The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why does Washington worry more about air delays than the 12 million unemployed?

The rest of the country understands how badly the economy continues to hurt ordinary Americans. Washington apparently doesn’t. The federal government has failed for several years now to pass meaningful legislation to boost growth and job creation, a partisan paralysis that holds while 12 million people look for work but can’t find it – but which vanishes in a matter of days when it comes to fixing delays at the nation’s airports.

Americans feel this disconnect. They’ve felt it for years. They’ve grown accustomed to the federal government being unable or unwilling to respond to the hurricane forces of lost jobs, falling wealth and stagnating incomes. And they’ve grown pessimistic and angry about it.

These are the conclusions you draw after reading the recent book “Working Scared (Or Not at All)” from political scientist Carl Van Horn. He directs the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University; since 1998, he and fellow researchers have interviewed almost 25,000 Americans, employed and unemployed, about their economic situation. The picture that emerges from their research is grim, and Washington should look hard at it.

“What really explains Americans’ dissatisfaction with the Congress, the president, etc., is the lack of performance in the economy,” Van Horn said in an interview this week. “People don’t really care about debt deals… they don’t follow these debates in Washington. But what they do follow is what’s happening to them in the economy. They judge the political system based on performance, and for them, the performance is not good.”

Van Horn’s book quantifies the economic pain and anxiety that piled up over the last decade and proliferated during and after the Great Recession. There are chapters on the forces undermining job security and satisfaction across the workforce. Van Horn lingers particularly on the struggles of America’s oldest workers, whipsawed by rapid changes and in many cases forced into a sort of permanent joblessness, and of its youngest workers, graduating into a labor market that offers much less opportunity than they were promised.

The power in “Working Scared” isn’t its data; it’s the voices of workers, venting, lamenting and often resigned.

One man, nearing retirement, unnamed in the book: “Being unemployed is frustrating, demeaning, and, at this point, frightening. Articles in the paper say we ‘baby boomers’ will have to work for a few more years especially since so many of us have lost half if not more in retirement ‘funds’. Now, you tell me, how can I work for a few more years if I can’t even get a job interview?”

An unemployed banker: “I have been unemployed for over two years. It shames me to even type those words on a keyboard… I have very little hope for my future. My biggest concern is what will the future hold for my seven year old daughter?”

A woman named Lyn: “I have no savings, no investment, no health insurance, no life insurance – all I got is me. I don’t have a family. I’m here, myself, just making a living.”

Friday’s GDP report, which fell below projections, gives those workers even more reason for pessimism. As my colleague Neil Irwin puts it, “We’re still stuck in the muck.” Americans feel that, acutely.

Do lawmakers?