April 10, 2010


Why the Unemployed Are Becoming Slackers (Reihan Salam, 4/09/10, Daily Beast)

For most of us, particularly those of us who've either endured or seen a loved one endure a spell of unemployment, the idea that joblessness is some kind of walk in the park seems faintly perverse if not completely infuriating. But without trivializing the psychic trauma involved, there's no getting around the fact that it is in many respects much easier to be unemployed now than it was in the Reagan-Volcker era. And if that's true, "blaming" President Obama for a high unemployment rate seems faintly absurd. Is it the president's fault that Americans are better off than they were 30 years ago, and are thus not desperate to take whatever job that comes along?

In 2010, there are far more two-earner households than there were in 1981, which means that many households now have an added economic cushion to help withstand the impact of a job loss. As labor economist Stephen Rose has noted, a husband-and-wife couple between the age of 25 and 62 has a median income of $70,000. If both spouses work at least part of the time, the median income goes to $81,000, an amount that allows for a comfortable standard of living in most U.S. metropolitan areas. An income shock that cuts that number in half or two-thirds would represent a significant blow to a family's economic prospects. But it's a far less serious blow than an income shock that cut the number down to zero.

Moreover, the welfare state is far more generous. Between 1981 and 2007, per capita spending on the federal welfare state increased by 77 percent, adjusted for inflation. Unemployment insurance has grown more generous. Over the last five years, the Pew study notes that unemployment insurance spending has gone from $33 billion to $168 billion. Half of that $168 billion in FY 2010 has gone to the long-term unemployed. This further helps cushion the blow, and it can allow an unemployed person to be somewhat choosier about her next job. While it's certainly true that many workers have taken jobs that involve huge salary cuts, many others are holding out hope for a job that matches expectations in a sunnier labor market. This isn't necessarily a bad thing for society. One can imagine workers using an extended spell of unemployment as an opportunity to gain new skills and to spend time with loved ones.

Especially now that feminism is past the stage where employment was seen as empowerment, why should both spouses in a couple with kids work.

Posted by Orrin Judd at April 10, 2010 5:56 AM
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