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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:

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A Budget That Tightens Belts by Emptying Stomachs

10:24 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(U.S. Department of Agriculture / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Originally posted at In These Times.

A time-honored tactic of conservative lawmakers is to “starve the beast”by defunding government programs. In the case of food stamps—the quintessential whipping boy for budget hawks—they’re going a step further by trying to starve actual people.

The House of Representatives and Senate have proposed the United States “tighten our belts” by slashing billions of dollars from poor people’s food budgets. The main mechanism for shrinking the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) funding is the removal of “categorical eligibility.” Basically, most states have used this policy to streamline enrollment: Families are made eligible for food stamps based on their receipt of other benefits, such as housing or childcare subsidies. That often means broadening eligibility for working-poor families or those with overall household income or savings that exceeds regular, stricter thresholds for qualifying for food stamps.

Now the House and Senate farm bill proposals, particularly the House plan, seek to “save” billions more by cutting categorical eligibility. Under the House farm bill budget, which cuts $20.5 billion in SNAP over 10 years, benefits would be eliminated for “nearly 2 million low-income people, mostly working families with children and senior citizens,” according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). (The Senate bill also cuts SNAP but only by about $4 billion over 10 years). In addition, the cuts would devastate poor students, because SNAP eligibility has enabled 210,000 low-income children to qualify for free school meals. That means more hunger pangs for kids in the cafeteria, and an emptier refrigerator waiting for them at home. Meanwhile, their working-poor parents may find themselves buying cheaper, less nutritious food to stretch budgets, or turning to the local food pantry, or facing cruel trade-offs like delaying rent payments to pay for groceries or leaving a health problem untreated. 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:

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Pension Panic Fueled by Anti-Worker Politics?

8:50 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Pew Center on the States

Originally posted at In These Times

It’s a common refrain in local papers: State faces pension funding crisis! Retiree benefits out of control! Public pensions bog down taxpayers! Pension costs seem to loom over so many state and local budget battles like a sinister sword of Damocles, a dark reminder of Big Government’s tyrannical profligacy.

Should we panic? Well, according to a new report by the Pew Center on the States, 61 cities face a collective fiscal retirement burden of more than $210 billion, in part because consistent underfunding of benefits leaves yawning gaps in long-term cost projections. The report surveyed all U.S. cities with populations over 500,000, along with the most populous city in each state. Some cities are doing better than others in maintaining funds, but gaps persist, according to Pew’s estimates for fiscal years 2007-2010, especially in municipalities where local governments have lacked the “fiscal discipline” to keep up pension fund contributions—a situation exacerbated by the Great Recession.

But different political actors have different motives for expressing alarm over pension gaps. In some cases, dubiously calculated figures have inflated public concern.

Sometimes, politicians frame cost-cutting proposals as if “generous” benefits themselves are the problem, as opposed to officials failing to uphold the commitments they’ve made to civil servants. Read the rest of this entry →

Reluctant to Hire the Unemployed? Too Bad, Says NYC

8:42 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(UnemployedWorkers.org)

Originally posted at In These Times

How do you get a job without experience? How do you get experience without a job? And so it goes for millions of people trapped in a dismal cycle of joblessness.

On Wednesday, New York City took a step to help unemployed workers out of that spiral. The City Council approved a groundbreaking measure to bar employers from using unemployment status as a deciding factor in reviewing job applicants. It would also outlaw job advertisements that make explicit reference to employment status itself as job criteria. By updating the city’s anti-discrimination policies, the legislation would enable individuals to file complaints or sue if they are “available for work, and seeking work” and have been unfairly denied consideration simply because they’re out of work.

The bill, passed by a 44-to-4 margin, is just a modest action against the crisis of chronic unemployment. But it draws a line against a relatively invisible form of discrimination fueled by the Great Recession. According to the latest employment statistics, the number of those who have been unemployed for 27 weeks or more has remained stubbornly high, constituting about 39 percent of the unemployed. In New York City, where unemployment is particularly severe, an analysis by the think tank Fiscal Policy Institute found that in 2012, about half of unemployed residents spent more than six months seeking work. The average duration of unemployment in 2012 topped 40 weeks in New York City. Women, blacks, and workers in older age brackets have been especially hard hit.

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The Young and the Disconnected

11:02 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Young artists work with Beacon House and DC Summer Youth Employment Program to paint a mural. Such programs help fight youth disconnection and the unemployment that is correlated with it--but they are scattered and underfunded. (Rails to Trail Conservancy / Flickr / Creative Commons).

Originally posted at In These Times

A first paycheck has traditionally been seen as a rite of passage, but these days, that paycheck is often coming later and later. Rather than launching a career, young adulthood is becoming, for many, a springboard to a lifetime of hardship, debt and instability.

According to a sobering new study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation (AECF), “More youth than ever—2.2 million teenagers and 4.3 million young adults ages 20 to 24—are neither in school nor working…. It often takes a GED to get a job flipping hamburgers. Even some with college degrees are having trouble finding work.”

And joblessness itself, AECF warns, can set back youth in the long term.

Though mass unemployment hits older workers hard, the scourge of joblessness among youth affects the future in ways that concern advocates, who predict that youth are being tracked toward chronic economic insecurity. Getting early work experience can jumpstart youth on a career path, or at least confer viable job skills that make them more economically resilient in adulthood. Conversely, as the AECF report suggests, missed opportunities early in life can deprive youth of long-term dividends:

At this rate, a generation will grow up with little early work experience, missing the chance to build knowledge and the job-readiness skills that come from holding part-time and starter jobs.

The huge numbers of young people who are shut out of those opportunities are typically up against other challenges. Youth “disconnection”—detachment from work and school—is often associated with setbacks such as poverty and household social stress. Disconnected youth are disproportionately black and Latino, concentrated in impoverished households, and more likely to have children themselves. A study published in September by Measure of Americashows that youth disconnection follows socioeeconomic divisions between neighborhoods. In New York, “disconnection rates range from 3.7 percent in parts of Long Island to 35.6 percent in parts of the South Bronx.” 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 →

Depression Symptoms: What’s Behind Europe’s Spike in Suicides

1:51 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Suicide rates in US (CDC, via earlywarn.blogspot.com)

Cross-posted from In These Times.

The metaphor of suicide has been used to depict the downward spiral surrounding countries bludgeoned by the economic crisis—particularly U.S. and Eurozone communities plagued by epidemic joblessness and a rash of budget cuts. Now the term literally describes the psychological dimension of the crisis, according to studies on suicide rates.

Some symptoms of the social despair have been grimly spectacular. Greece was jolted one recent morning after aging pensioner Dimitris Christoulas put a pistol to his head in Athens’s main square. In 2010 Americans were shaken by the suicide-by-plane of Andrew Stack, whose anger at the political establishment propelled him into an Austin office complex. Poorer regions have flared with public self-immolations, particularly in the communities of the “Arab Spring” where many youth come to see life as a dead-end street. Underlying these more dramatic examples are statistical patterns that reflect society’s unraveling.

A recently published Lancet study showed spikes in suicide across Europe during the recession. While many factors could contribute to this pattern, researchers found a significant correlation between unemployment and suicide trends. Read the rest of this entry →

Free Agents: Will Micro-Labor Shrink Workplace Rights?

11:26 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Cross-posted from In These Times.

The universe of the Web-based marketplace allows you to sell just about anything online today—so why not your labor? The “help wanted” page has now upgraded itself for an Information Age economic crisis, with a new crop of services that link odd jobs to people looking to make a buck.

Some websites offer a vast pool of local jobbers who do tasks ranging from driving a delivery truck to fishing keys from a sewer. While this may seem like a killer-app version of a traditional hiring hall, the market for “micro-labor” raises questions about the privatization and personalization of work today.

The Wall Street Journal featured one rapid-fire online job marketplace based in San Francisco, awash in venture capital:

After launching six months ago, Zaarly is processing more than 1,000 transactions a week for jobs that cost around $50 a pop. Chief Executive and cofounder Bo Fishback, 33, says about half the requests involve tangible goods, and the rest involve some sort of service. One of his favorites: a person who hired someone to buy a Michael Jackson-themed dog costume for a puppy.

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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 →