The Poverty Harbinger
It's easy to forget about jobs. Amid headlines of Iranian sanction lifting, millions of Americans losing their health insurance, political malfeasance and the cover-ups they trigger, the grand backstory shaping these stories is the fundamental transformation of what it means to labor in America.
The decline and fall of jobs in our time has been a largely inaccessible story. For the past decade we have seen both apocalyptic and salvific headlines containing similar measures of job growth and loss. Unemployment rates have "skyrocketed" to 6.2% (September 2008) and "unexpectedly fallen" to 8.6% (November 2011.) With these hyperemotional explanations, the American people, writ large, have become intellectually and empathetically severed from our devolving economy of employment. The convulsions of the market reflected in incrementally ticking numbers has been a sedative for the American psyche. Next month's unemployment number, be it up to 8.2%, down 6.9% or an unfathomable 31.6% would each wholly alien and indecipherable.
Amid this matrix of employment statistics, there is emerging an consensus that things are simply getting markedly worse. Our headlines declare recurrent seasons of recovery with finite moments of hope, but the American people testify that labor in America is fundamentally disconnected from historic experience.
The evolving standard of statistical methods does much to provide arguments in support of this feeling. Without descending to a defcon-5 level nerd natter of statistical methodology, there is a generalized and corrupting reduction of the number of people in the labor market, in defiance of our increasing population, undercutting official statistics. Be it more generous definitions of discouraged workers or lowering the bar for qualifying as permanently disabled, the fact is that our government considers increasing numbers of Americans as something other than labor-force participants. This movement, unable to be hidden with data tomfoolery, is the harbinger of an emerging America.
This past month of October, a record 932,000 Americans -- or approximately the entire population of San Jose, CA -- exited the labor force. This army increased the total population of Americans not participating in any form of labor to 95.1 million, or the combined populations of California, Texas, New York, and New Jersey. (For a more complete analysis visit zero-hedge) This medium-sized European country of people account for 37.2% of the entire U.S. work-aged population. Put another way, with slight rounding, 2 out of 5 grownups you pass on the streets are officially considered outside of the labor force -- less than 1 in 10 of the remaining are unemployed.
This incredible number of people is an amalgamation of souls callously tossed together as a synthetic homogeneous group. Among these persons are the interminably dependent, who for generations have refused to forgo public assistance for the toils of labor. Mixed into this group of willing non-participants is a collection of less enthusiastic enjoyers of unrestrained free time. From the discouraged to the overly frustrated to the clinically depressed, today's America is, for the first time in decades, home to large numbers of people denied the opportunity to earn their daily bread. In this group a new creature is born, the future citizen of an alien America.
The great hope which has evermore been America is optimism birthed in opportunity. No matter your station in life, in this land all men were equal in the opportunity to apply their hands to labor. If employment was simply about survival, this equality of man would have no virtue in being applied to opportunity -- bread, clothes, and shelter would be the only morally important ingredients to a good life. Ours, in stark contrast to accumulated history, is a land in which no one goes hungry. In this land of abundance, the labors of individuals are freed from the burdens of sustenance to be applied to higher, more divine pursuits. Here is where our accumulated wealth comes from: individuals unlocking the secrets of nature as they engage their minds and energies to the elements around them -- unmolested by both the savagery of survival and the controlling hand of their betters. This is the idea of America in one sentence.
It is here that the problem of unemployment becomes the evil of denial. Our massive unemployment is morally unproblematic because of the vast array of safety nets in place to support thoes lacking work. The elements provided the unemployed may sustain their bodies, but callously starve the soul. The sum total of our cultural inheritance requires that people be given the opportunity to seek after something more than food -- to pursue happiness. While recipients of public assistance are neither denied entertainment nor luxuries, they are still denied the opportunity to find happiness and purpose in labor. They are devolved into a different class of Americans; having access to materiel wealth common to all, but utterly deprived the spiritual fulfillment of self-expressive entrepreneurship. There is no creation of wealth; no hope for unexpected fortune -- only poverty amid exorbitant plenty.
The sheer quantity of nonparticipants in our economy today is a harbinger of wild poverty to come. Impoverishment of souls occurring through the denial of inalienable rights is creating the conditions of unsegregated poverty -- despite long-established and profoundly honorable safety-nets. Long before the ability to fund the assistance programs runs out, the wealth of the American spirit will go bankrupt. No longer the land of opportunity, we will create an inequality outpacing today's concerns of distribution. In this ominous future there will be those who maintain sums of wealth unknown to history, but it will no longer be an example of providence -- only a testament to greed. There will be no common prosperity, nor the opportunity to create new wealth; only the chance for a privileged few to hoard and protect their personal fortunes. This is a warning not reflected in our sliding scale of official unemployment, but unnervingly present in the minds of Americans today.
This is the war into which history has drafted us; the question remains as to which side we will enlist. Are we people who will vote ourselves a future in which the poor are taken care of and the wealthy hoard ill-gotten gains; or will we reaffirm the value and inalienable rights of the individual? The opportunity inherent in the second proposition is a future of abundance beyond the dreams of the richest among us today. It begins by reaffirming the high virtue of work -- and halting the removal of its burdens and glories from a third of the population.