An Ode to the Unemployed: Someone’s Gotta Write It

You know who never writes op-ed columns? Unemployed people.

Think about it. By definition, every op-ed columnist is employed — by the newspaper (or a syndicate). Unemployed people don’t have a voice in the press. Literally.

There are 14 million unemployed people in the United States, and not a single one gets to tell the world how they feel.

So when we debate the $447 billion American Jobs Act proposed by President Obama earlier this week, the people who are most affected by it have the least say in its success or failure. There’s something fundamentally undemocratic about that.  

The same goes for cable news. Last month, the Center for American Progress counted the number of times that CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC used the word “debt” in a typical week: 7,583. Then they counted how many times they used the word “unemployment”: 427. Finally, how many times they used the word “unemployed”: 75.

We have the lowest interest rates in sixty years, the lowest inflation since the Johnson administration, and the highest unemployment in my lifetime. And we’re all talking about budget deficits.

You know who’s not talking about budget deficits? Unemployed people.

They’ve got bigger problems. 42 percent say unemployment has strained their family relations, 40 percent have lost contact with close friends, and 33 percent report a loss of self-respect. Almost half of the unemployed have difficulty sleeping due to their job loss. One in five had to seek professional help for anxiety and depression as a result of their financial situation.

To pay the bills, half of them had to borrow money from a family member or friend, and over half withdrew money from their retirement savings. 43 percent had trouble getting or paying for medical care. One in three had problems paying their rent or mortgage.

So much for living the easy life on unemployment insurance.

When laid-off workers do get a new job, they earn about 30 percent less than they used to. Even after the recession has long since passed, college graduates who entered the workforce during a recession earn significantly less than those who graduated when times were good.

If you lose your job just before you’re about to retire, you’re twice as likely to have a stroke or heart attack. Your chance of dying increases 50 percent. Even if you’re not near retirement, you’re 54 percent more likely to experience bad health.

The unemployed aren’t the only ones who suffer from unemployment. Their children are 15 percent more likely to perform so poorly in school that they have to repeat a grade. From 2007 to 2010, the percent of children with an unemployed parent more than doubled. Largely as a result, one in five children now live in poverty.

And the best excuses we can come up with for inaction are that unemployment insurance will only give them another reason not to get a job or that Congress is taking money away from companies who will invest it more efficiently. Except it won’t and they’re not.

Unemployment didn’t increase because the government started paying more to the unemployed. It increased because people stopped buying and banks stopped lending and companies stopped hiring. Every sensible research study finds that unemployment insurance increases unemployment by less than half a percentage point.

And Congress isn’t taking money away from anybody. If they borrow that money, it’s at negative real interest rates, and it’s money that companies aren’t spending anyway. It’s cheap, and it’s not being used. There’s no excuse not to give it to people in need.

If Congress does take money away from anybody, the President wants them to take it away from Big Oil and other corporations that don’t need it in the first place. If Congress really believes in the free market, they shouldn’t be giving away these tax breaks. They should be giving tax breaks to people who don’t have stockpiles of cash sitting on the sidelines.

You know the people I’m referring to. They’re your neighbors and your classmates, your friends and your family, the guy next to you in line at the supermarket and the woman begging the bank not to foreclose on her house. They’re everywhere except on your newspaper’s op-ed page. They’re the unemployed.

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This op-ed was published in today’s South Florida Sun-Sentinel, alongside an opposing view from Prof. Chandra Mishra of Florida Atlantic University. We were asked to discuss President Obama’s American Jobs Ac