More Pain For Economic Victims

Paul Krugman’s latest column discusses the alarmingly large ranks of the long-term unemployed:

Five years after the crisis, unemployment remains elevated, with almost 12 million Americans out of work. But what’s really striking is the huge number of long-term unemployed, with 4.6 million unemployed more than six months and more than three million who have been jobless for a year or more. Oh, and these numbers don’t count those who have given up looking for work because there are no jobs to be found.

Don’t count on the numbers falling rapidly, even if the economy gains momentum, because the long-term unemployed are getting blackballed by employers:

One piece of evidence comes from the relationship between job openings and unemployment. Normally these two numbers move inversely: the more job openings, the fewer Americans out of work. And this traditional relationship remains true if we look at short-term unemployment. But as William Dickens and Rand Ghayad of Northeastern University recently showed, the relationship has broken down for the long-term unemployed: a rising number of job openings doesn’t seem to do much to reduce their numbers. It’s as if employers don’t even bother looking at anyone who has been out of work for a long time.

To test this hypothesis, Mr. Ghayad then did an experiment, sending out resumes describing the qualifications and employment history of 4,800 fictitious workers. Who got called back? The answer was that workers who reported having been unemployed for six months or more got very few callbacks, even when all their other qualifications were better than those of workers who did attract employer interest.

So we are indeed creating a permanent class of jobless Americans.

Being an economist, Krugman mostly addresses this as an economic phenomenon (the long-term unemployed don’t have much purchasing power), but acknowledges this trend is also “ruining many lives.” It’s another reminder that a sort of “punish the victims” mentality has sunk deep roots in the national psychology in the wake of the Great Recession. It was bad enough when millions of people with underground mortgages were being widely blamed for lacking foresight about their own economic calamities and allegedly expecting “bail-outs” from the consequences of their irresponsible behavior. Now we are talking about millions more (some of them, of course, possibly the same people) who may well descend into the underclass for the rest of their lives because they haven’t held a job lately.

At some point, if this status produces anti-social behavior, I’m sure a lot of comfortably situated people will share some additional self-righeousness with these folk, and find it in their hearts to support even more public expenditures for incarcerating them than anyone proposed for helping them get back into the mainstream economy. But I guess this way of looking at it just confirms I’m one of those ninny-faced liberals who identifies with perpetrators rather than victims.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.