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Who’s Really To Blame for Unemployment?

4:54 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Though some protesters at an ‘Unemployment Olympics’ event in Tompkins Square Park, N.Y. blamed joblessness on ‘the boss,’ a new report suggests that the economic climate is more at fault. (Clementine Gallot / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Originally published at In These Times

Guided by the mythology of the “American dream”—the idea that, given the opportunity, the deserving will excel and rise above their peers—politicians often attribute unemployment to a mystical “skills gap.” If people can’t find a job, the logic goes, they clearly weren’t fit to be hired. As a consequence, many legislators tout specialized training programs or education reforms as possible solutions to America’s seemingly intractable jobs crisis. But a new study shows that blaming the “skills gap” for unemployment makes about as much sense as blaming a mass famine on “excess hunger.”

A recent analysis by the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute shows that elevated unemployment is due to a general lack of demand in the job market, fueled by overarching economic decline. In other words, this is not a problem that can merely be addressed by retraining workers or revamping the education system.

In the report, economist Heidi Shierholz outlines this economic imbalance by comparing unemployment at different levels of education. Her results reveal that workers are suffering across the board:

Workers with a college degree or more still have unemployment rates that are more than one-and-a-half times as high as they were before the recession began. In other words, demand for workers at all levels of education is significantly weaker now than it was before the recession started. There is no evidence of workers at any level of education facing tight labor markets relative to 2007.

Moreover, the report continues, there are no specific job sectors that appear to be especially “tight.” So it’s not that the economy especially favors, for example, radiologists or software engineers; bosses seem to be shutting the door on workers of all sorts:

Read the rest of this entry →

New York City Immigrants Test a New Economic ‘Bridge’

8:04 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Lady Liberty welcomes immigrants to New York City, but in reality it’s hard for skilled workers to get their foot in the door. (Sgt. Randall. A. Clinton / Flickr )

Originally published at In These Times

For all the supposed potential of the “American Dream,” immigrants in New York City often have a terrible time redeeming its promise. Many arrive in the United States with no financial grounding or burdened by a heap of debt; others can spend years priced out of financial credit by poverty and discrimination. Now, however, the city is allocating a little seed capital toward the long-overlooked economic potential of poor immigrant communities.

The Immigrant Bridge program of the city’s Economic Development Corporation is a pilot initiative that aims to invest in the future careers of struggling, underemployed immigrant workers who came equipped with credentials earned in their home countries but have been unable to get their foot in the professional door of the city’s labor market. A core component of the program is a special loan fund for immigrants with a college background, ranging from $1,000 to $10,000, borrowed on five-year terms, which can be used to cover any expense, including the cost of necessary licensing exams, training classes, or basic life expenses like transportation costs. In addition to the loan fund, which will be administered by Amalgamated Bank, selected program participants would engage in career development programs to place them into jobs that suit their aptitudes.

Though Amalgamated obviously has a commercial interest in the program, the union-owned bank has built up street cred as a proletarian-friendly institution, with historical ties to the immigrant labor movement. “There’s a lot of unutilized human capital here in immigrant communities… and we want them to be reaching their full potential,” says Andrew Weltman, Amalgamated’s first Vice President for Strategic Development.

The 400 participants who will ultimately be selected to participate in Immigrant Bridge reflect just a sliver of a systemic gap in the city’s economic landscape, though. Many well-educated immigrants face structural obstacles when seeking to break into a professional field, even one in which they were successful before migrating. (Nationwide data on metropolitan areas hows that the majority of immigrants hold “middle skill” or “high skill” qualifications.)

According to the New York-based think tank Fiscal Policy Institute, immigrant New Yorkers hold considerable economic clout, making up “84 percent of small grocery store owners, 69 percent of restaurant owners, and 63 percent of clothing store owners.” But even if they are technically business owners, the work can be rough and the pay low, whether you’re running a daycare business in your home or driving a cab every night. Read the rest of this entry →

Bullet-proof Jobs: Summer Employment May Help Stem Youth Violence

3:38 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

A 2011 installation outside of Chicago’s Fourth Presbyterian Church displayed 77 t-shirts, representing the 77 Chicago youth who were killed by violence during the 2010-2011 school year. (Photo by Marit & Toomas Hinnosaar via Flickr)

Originally published at In These Times

It’s conventional wisdom: Kids get into trouble when they have nothing better to do. Now, research reveals that a summer youth employment program might reduce violence, apparently bearing out the adage that “nothing stops a bullet like a job.”

A new study by researchers at the University of Chicago’s Crime Lab think tank shows that youth who participated in the city’s One Summer Plus employment program had a much better chance of avoiding arrests for violent crime than those who did not have the same opportunities.

Researchers tracked a sample of 730 youth who were selected through an open, lottery-based application process to participate in the jobs program. They ranged in age 14 to 21 and attended schools in low-income communities with high rates of violence. In the year prior to the program, they had missed an average of six weeks of school, and about one in five had been arrested. In short, they represented the youth most vulnerable to Chicago’s epidemic of gun violence, as well as to a general decline in youth employment—both problems that disproportionately affectblack teens.

The One Summer Plus teens were matched with private, nonprofit and faith-based workplaces, in entry-level, minimum-wage positions such as child care, clerical work and landscaping. The program is financed by foundation and government funding.

Researchers found that the “at-risk youth” who had engaged in the summer work “experienced a 51 percent drop in arrests for violent crime” in the seven months after the program’s conclusion when compared to a peer control group. Though researchers say more data is needed to comprehensively assess the impact on schooling and long-term development, the positive findings so far suggest that the money invested in the program (about $3,000 per youth) pays economic and social dividends down the line.

The study parallels other research showing the social benefits of teen employment, including a recent study on a similar program in Boston that linked summer jobs to “positive changes in risky, deviant, delinquent, and violent behaviors” among urban youth.

Though the University of Chicago researchers provided rare empirical insight into the benefits of youth employment, for kids like Devontae Banks, the cost-benefit analysis is more straightforward. One Summer got him a job as a peer health educator with a local HIV/AIDS prevention campaign. That summer job, which involved giving presentations to other youth on sexual health and HIV prevention, has since grown into a long-term position. He now plans to study medicine after graduating—an aspiration he would never have picked up in his old summer job, helping harvest crops at a farm in Sterling. For Banks, the real reward of the program was access to a job that was more stimulating and made him feel invested in his community, rather than just manual labor for pocket money.

“In the previous job, it was just no skill required, just all hard work,” he says. The challenge of the One Summer job was daunting at first, he recalls: “I was nervous, because I didn’t know as much as I know now about HIV and STDs. But now it’s like a walk through a park. It’s actually kind of fun.”

Researchers note that the effects of summer employment continue long after the six-to-seven-week work period, which suggests it does more for youth than just occupy idle time. University of Chicago researcher Sara Heller, one of the authors of the study, tells In These Times via email that she sees a long-term behavioral shift: Read the rest of this entry →

That Unemployment Form Might Violate Your Civil Rights

1:40 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Originally posted at In These Times

If you think being jobless is tough, try applying for unemployment benefits. In Florida, simply filling out the form requires considerable talent and endurance. According to a recent ruling by the federal Department of Labor, the state’s new online application process is so fraught with arbitrary obstacles that it violates federal civil rights protections.

An initial determination by the Department of Labor’s Civil Rights Center, announced last week, concluded that Florida’s recently implemented web-based unemployment benefits system effectively deterred people from completing the claims process because it was needlessly burdensome and complex. The CRC’s investigation found that the state failed to provide adequate services or alternative application procedures to applicants who face special barriers, particularly people with disabilities and those with limited English proficiency.

The new process for filing for unemployment benefits, first rolled out in 2011 as part of a “modernization” program, has introduced daunting new hoops for applicants. The main quagmire is a “skills assessment” that can take as long as 45 minutes. Activists point out that forcing someone answer a long questionnaire about their job skills and abilities, simply to qualify for benefits, seems a conveniently backhanded way to arbitrarily exclude applicants.

Although advocates criticize the system as a whole as unnecessarily burdensome, the CRC complaint, brought by the Miami Workers Center, focuses on people protected by the anti-discrimination protections of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. Though the initial determination is not a final ruling, CRC’s investigation has found that the state has failed to meet federal standards for ensuring equal access. So the system actually reproduced the same social barriers that made it hard for these vulnerable groups to climb out of unemployment. That is, immigrants with limited language ability, who are often relegated to the worst-paid, least stable jobs, and people with disabilities, who suffer extraordinarily high unemployment rates, may have been arbitrarily denied the meager benefits payments that might be their main financial fallback as they struggle to find work.

The supposed purpose of the state’s online skills assessment is to better assess the needs of the applicant. But that information is extracted at a high price. As a prerequisite for qualifying for unemployment payments, the CRC concludes, the skills review “tends to screen out persons with disabilities from fully and equally enjoying the benefits of [Florida’s unemployment compensation] program.”

Spending nearly an hour fumbling with a web application would be frustrating for anyone. But if you’re poor, jobless and have to rely on a local library for Internet access, or suffer from a repetitive stress injury that makes typing unbearable, or have trouble reading English, it may be virtually impossible to surmount the state’s bureaucratic firewall. Under the previous, simpler application system, applicants could file by phone or fill out a paper form. According to National Employment Law Project (NELP), phone applications previously accounted for some 40 percent of filings.

George Wentworth, an attorney with NELP—which has worked with Florida Legal Services to petition the Labor Department about flaws in Florida’s application process—says that eligibility for unemployment should be based on three simple things: a workers’ unemployed status, whether she’s actively seeking work and whether she’s worked enough in the past to meet the basic requirements. “That should be all that’s necessary to get in the front door of the system,” Wentworth says, “and what Florida has done is to erect a wall, rather than a door.”

According to the CRC’s initial findings, despite federal civil rights laws that entitle protected groups to alternative accommodations, the state has failed to provide needed services. NELP’s analysis of the ruling outlined several examples of discriminatory barriers:

Read the rest of this entry →

Looking for a Good Job? Don’t Get Your Hopes Up

4:51 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

CEPR / In These Times

 

Originally posted at In These Times

 

If you think your job stinks, you’re not alone. And if you’re still looking for a decent job, don’t expect to find one anytime soon, or ever.

A new analysis of job quality, assessing various measures of benefits and wages, confirms what many of us already suspected: Good jobs are vanishing from the United States, with global trade and social disinvestment leaving workers stranded on a barren economic landscape.

The report, published by John Schmitt and Janelle Jones from the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), shows that the downward spiral began long before the recent economic crisis. It notes that since 1979, the “good job” (one that “pays at least $18.50 an hour, has employer provided health insurance, and some kind of retirement plan”) has become an endangered species:

[T]he economy has lost about one-third (28 to 38 percent) of its capacity to generate good jobs. The data show only minor differences between 2007, before the Great Recession began, and 2010, the low point for the labor market.

In 2010, “less than one-fourth (24.6 percent) of the workforce” possessed those precious good jobs. And the clincher is this downturn is beginning to look like a sad plateau:

The deterioration in the economy’s ability to generate good jobs reflects long-run changes in the U.S. economy, not short-run factors related to the recession or recent economic policy.

While workers around the world have witnessed massive economic volatility in the recent boom-bust cycles, food crises and political upheavals, the trend line of labor hardship holds steady. The societal impacts of unemployment crises parallel the effect of long-term effects on individual workers, especially young ones–a self-perpetuating sense of despair and isolation, and perhaps entrenched, long-term suffering. Read the rest of this entry →

Study: Restaurants Feed on Exploited Women’s Labor

7:08 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Next time you plunk down some change on the table before leaving a restaurant, think about what might be behind that service with a smile. A new study warns that when Americans eat out, they feed into an industry fueled by exploitation and rampant discrimination against women.

The report, published by the labor advocacy group Restaurant Opportunities Center United (ROC) in partnership with a coalition of labor and women’s rights groups, details the restaurant industry’s secret recipe for fattening profits: low wages, harsh working conditions, erratic hours and multiple racial and gender barriers to job advancement–all served with a side of broken immigration laws and a powerful industry lobby.

In a testimony in the report, Claudia Muñoz recalled how her job at a national pancake chain restaurant in Texas demanded round-the-clock hours without overtime pay. Scrounging for tips, she earned as little as $160 per week. Muñoz says:

I had to eat less than $6.50 for the employee meal. … I could only afford pancakes. If you were on the schedule for only 5 hours, you couldn’t get a meal. There were days when I wouldn’t eat all day.

Surrounding her was a cross-section of the country’s forgotten workforce:

There were a lot of older people—women in their 50’s. They had children, families, some were single mothers … and $2.13 plus tips was all they had. … It really opened my eyes. It was Latinos cooking, white women working graveyard shifts, men working during the day. I saw the racism, sexism, and low wages in the industry. Everything I remember from that place was horrible. Read the rest of this entry →

Trans-Pacific Trade Deal Opens Eastern Front for Neoliberalism

8:49 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Image: Citizens Trade Campaign

Cross-posted from In These Times.

With the U.S. economy stuck in a constant rut and Europe going into a tailspin, President Obama is looking to escape to the East. While the nations of the Asian Pacific rim face strains of their own, from massive inequality to climate change, their growth rates look positively zen compared to the stagnant economies that used to run the world.

So for the past several days President Obama has been charming Asia-Pacific officialdom, hoping these “emerging” economies can prop up the West’s sagging empires. At home, the White House has sold its vision for the “Pacific Century” as a boon for U.S. jobs, and abroad, he’s looking to consolidate influence over Asian leaders with subtle overtures toward checking China’s regional power.

The centerpiece of this program is the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement that would involve Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam, in addition to the U.S. While it would build on existing trade ties in the region, critics see it as an unprecedented supersized neoliberal agenda repackaged with the bow of modernization and “development.”

But according to fair trade activists, the deal may end up not only failing to bring significant job opportunities, but laying the groundwork for an economic regime built on offshoring, deregulation and the swapping of national sovereignty for corporatocracy. Read the rest of this entry →

While Washington Dithers, Labor Brings Jobs and Equity Home

6:48 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Image: LA County Federation of Labor / Creative Commons, lacountyfed, flickr

The 2012 campaign trail is already littered with silver bullets and peppy slogans about boosting America out of its unemployment slump. But for the most part, the plans that politicians have trotted out–from Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 mantra to the GOP’s latest corporate welfare formulas, to Obama’s limp blend of free-trade policies and woefully inadequate stimulus–stick faithfully to the path of neoliberalism, paving the way for more outsized corporate profits.

So does anyone have a plan to steer industry toward the needs of communities? Researchers at Cornell University have located a few novel ideas, well outside the Beltway, that are blazing small trails in economic disaster zones. Their study focuses on project labor agreements that are designed to meet workers’ needs for decent wages and working conditions, while upholding principles of equity in local hiring practices.

Community workforce provisions in labor agreements have been used in various cities to help low-income and working-class people land solid jobs with opportunities for advancement, while building in corporate accountability, to prevent employers from exploiting local workers or undermining labor rights. Read the rest of this entry →

Scant Room for Equity in Obama’s Talking Points on Jobs

7:16 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Photo by Kevin Lamarque-Pool/Getty Images

Cross-posted from In These Times.

President Obama’s jobs speech before Congress struck an uncomfortable balance between the art of the possible and the sophistry of defeatism.

The speech did offer some serious ideas about reinvigorating the stagnant economy. But for all the talking points—from infrastructure investment to initiatives to promote hiring of veterans and the long-term unemployed—his eloquent words sidestepped the ideological barriers imposed by Washington’s reactionary ideologues. Meanwhile, the groups suffering the worst of the economic crisis—the poor, people of color, single women—may be hurt more by his careful omissions than they’d be helped by his proposals.

First, it’s far from clear whether the initiatives laid out in the speech, particularly the tax-cutting provisions, would make a significant dent in unemployment. The Progressive’s Matthew Rothschild points out that the structure of Obama’s highlighted payroll tax cut could be considered “regressive,” in that the bonus will be weighted toward the pockets of higher income-earners rather than the working poor.

More broadly, the pitch for cautiously modest, though earnest, stimulus measures seemed designed to ease the path toward more deficit slashing and cutbacks on social programs in the long run. The subtext appears to be a drive toward austerity and “entitlement reform”—pivoting toward conservatives who routinely demonize “nanny state” institutions like Social Security and Medicare. So despite rhetoric that pundits praised as “Trumanesque” and “fiery,” celebrating historic public works and exhorting Congress to cooperate for once, the speech was silent on the institutional pillars that should buttress any job creation plan. Read the rest of this entry →

Georgia’s Celebrated No-Cost Labor Scheme: Cheating the Jobless?

4:36 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Cross-posted from In These Times

For a typical boss, there’s only one thing better than getting away with not paying your workers: getting the government to supply you with people who will work for free. It’s an employer’s dream that may soon become reality around the country, as President Obama has moved toward incorporating it in his emerging job-creation agenda.

The job-creation flavor of the week is GeorgiaWork$, a job program that has for several years funneled unemployed workers into job slots as “trainees.” Under this half-internship, half-indentured servitude scheme, a worker can earn a $240 weekly stipend on top of regular unemployment benefits for eight weeks, working 24 hours per week. Unlike other job subsidy programs, which use generally use public dollars to supplement workers’ regular earnings, GeorgiaWork$ allows the state to capitalize on existing unemployment payments while giving a free boost to private employers. Workers, often hired in service sectors like child care and restaurant work, can only hope that their bosses will hire them after their preliminary test run ends.

This system fits well with Obama’s anti-spending, quasi-pro-stimulus double-speak, and his forthcoming jobs plan may include a federal version of Georgia’s virtually free labor system.

While there may be many desperate people ready to forfeit labor standards for any form of paid work, the Huffington Post reports that so far, the program doesn’t seem to live up to its promise of  sustainable job growth: