The unemployment crisis that lies behind the US monthly jobs report | Heidi Moore

While pundits obsess about a decimal point, the real story is the 15 million out-of-work Americans cut loose by policy-makers

Friday brought a relatively good employment report. The economy added fewer jobs than economists had hoped for, but they were of good quality: most of them came from private companies, rather than the government. Construction did extremely well, as new houses are being built. Further math showed that the economy actually added more jobs than we thought it had in November and December.

It is tempting to call this a recovery. A number of economic indicators show that the economy is at least moving forward, rather than back. Housing is doing well, for instance. GDP, except for a blip late last year thanks to lower defense spending related to the fiscal cliff, shows every sign that it will continue to grow.

As much as the numbers move forward, though, there is some sadness embedded in them: we still have an joblessness crisis. And as long as the actual numbers appear to get "better", then it will not be treated like a crisis, but more like an inconvenience. For the duration of the US unemployment crisis, we have had no answers. No one is really working on any solutions to it except "wait and hope, and hope and see."

Note this glum start to the Bureau of Labor Statistics' news release today:

"The number of unemployed persons, at 12.3 million, was little changed in January."

Further down, something even more glum:

"In January, the number of long-term unemployed (those jobless for 27 weeks or more) was about unchanged at 4.7m and accounted for 38.1% of the unemployed."

Those figures tell the truth more than any other numbers do. Let's leave the jobs report behind and look at the jobs picture.

In the real economy, we still have a significant number of unemployed people – and more importantly, we have a core group of long-term unemployed people, who become more unemployable the longer they are out of work. There are another 2.4 million people who are "marginally attached", meaning they were "not in the labor force, wanted and were available for work, and had looked for a job sometime in the prior 12 months. They were not counted as unemployed because they had not searched for work in the four weeks preceding the survey."

If you add those marginally attached workers – those able-bodied, willing to work, and unable to find jobs – to the number of unemployed, it gets closer to 15 million people out of work. That's a crisis. And even while the Dow Jones Industrial Average rises to new highs – it hit 14,000 just today – big companies are still making layoffs. This week alone, mass layoffs of more than 50 people and up to 1,000 were announced at Time Inc, Disney, BAE Systems, Harman International, Viking Range, Amgen and Boston Scientific.

What makes it a crisis is that we don't seem to have any ideas on how to employ the unemployed. There are few, if any, ideas coming out of Washington. Corporate America, which still considers itself reeling from the recession, seems disinclined to pitch in – except for a few outliers like Starbucks' "Create Jobs for USA" program. No major retraining programs have cropped up (even if the unemployed, with their pained finances, could afford them).

Despite the nation's weakening infrastructure on roads and bridges and sewer systems, there are no grand plans to deploy laborers to fix them: plenty of experts believe that a boost in infrastructure spending could help us grow jobs again, but not much is moving on that front. No industry except construction seems to be adding jobs at a rapid enough clip to breathe life into the economy.

That's not very comforting. We can't be a housing-centered economy again. Haven't we grown up yet?

And those who are getting jobs aren't getting good, well-paying ones. Bloomberg economist Joseph Brusuelas pointed out that the lowest-paid jobs are going the fastest: "the composition of jobs continues to reflect the low-wage bias in hiring that is one of the primary characteristics of the current business cycle," he wrote. Additionally, at least 8 million people are working part-time because they can't get full-time work.

For young people, the picture is even worse, as nonprofit organization Generation Opportunity pointed out in their latest Millennial Jobs report. They estimate that the youth unemployment rate, the rate for 18-29 year-olds, last month was 13%; an additional 1.7 million young adults don't even count as part of the labor force, they point out, because they've given up looking for work. Terence Grado, director of policy at Generation Opportunity, said in a statement:

"My generation is suffering disproportionately … we need a new strategy that encourages the private sector to grow, invest, and provide real opportunities for the millions of young people who have great skills, are ready to contribute, and have waited long enough."

Grado has a point – not just for millennials, but for all of the unemployed in America. They're not really looking at month-to-month changes in numbers gathered in Washington; they're looking for some hope that things will change. That seems very hard to provide right now.

The Federal Reserve's low interest-rate policy has helped Corporate America rebound, and may have saved the economy at the high end, where banks and companies live. Now, though, it's time to buckle down and look for ideas that will move the needle on unemployment in regular households, where everyone else resides.


Heidi Moore

The GuardianTramp

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