Why Nothing Will Be Done

The great advantage of democracy is that it gives a voice to those who can speak.  But what if your voice is too weak to be heard?

That is the dilemma of the unemployed, according to Robert Reich the former Secretary of Labor under President Clinton. “The unemployed are politically invisible,” he writes on his blog. “They don’t make major campaign donations. They don’t lobby Congress. There’s no National Association of Unemployed People.” (See, “Recovery stalling: Why Washington won’t act.”)

He lists the groups that have been particularly hard hit: “women who had been public employees, single mothers, minorities, young people trying to enter the labor force, and middle-aged men who have been out of work for longer than six months.”

He starts with public employees, mostly women, fired as local communities slash school budgets and cut social services.  Towns and cities struggling to live within their means, without raising taxes, cause voters increasingly to view them as liabilities.

Unmarried mothers are having a particularly difficult time getting back their jobs because their work was heavily concentrated in the retail, restaurant and hotel sectors, particularly hard hit by the recession. People don’t have the extra cash to keep them busy.  Blacks continue to suffer from the effects of discrimination and poor education.  Often the last hired, they are the first fired.

As for young people entering the job market, Reich notes, “Employers with a pick of applicants see no reason to hire someone without a track record, particularly those without much education. Unemployment among high school dropouts is hovering around 30%.”

The saddest story, though, is that older workers face the toughest obstacles:  “Employers assume they aren’t as qualified or reliable as those who are younger and have been working more recently. According to research by the Urban Institute, once you’re laid off, your chance of finding another job within a year is 36% if you’re under the age of 34. But your odds drop the older you get. If you’re jobless and in your 50s, your chance of landing another job within the year is only 24%. Over 62, you’ve got only an 18% chance.”

Reich concludes: “You couldn’t find a collection of people with less political clout.”

But though these are plausible reasons to explain why each of these groups has such a hard time in the job market, I can’t help but think that there is an underlying common prejudice:  If you have lost your job, people tend to think, it must be your fault.  This is part of an even larger tendency:  If possible, blame the victim.

That’s the easiest way we all have to dispose of troubling and intractable problems.   If we can think that people create the difficulties they face, it’s not our problem.