I wrote two weeks ago about the unemployment problem that’s gradually getting worse both locally and in the country as a whole -- and not just recently, but for more than a decade. The proportion of the population that works is steadily declining. Nobelist Paul Krugman says that we’re on the verge of mass unemployment, if we aren’t already there.
What to do?
The Federal Reserve’s answer for the past 10 months has been to pump $85 billion per month into the money supply. That has inflated asset values dangerously, but has barely made a dent in the unemployment rate. Monetary policy is, for the non-working, not working. Congress and the White House tried a trillion-dollar stimulus program at the beginning of the Obama presidency. Though it may have stanched more rapid declines, that program ended without changing the long-run trend. Population continues to grow faster than the workforce. Throwing money at a few big companies to do a few big projects isn’t going to work.
President Obama in his second inaugural address offered the usual homilies about better education, specifically, nationwide Head Start. But even if the country could wait 20 years for any results, Georgia’s experience suggests that free, universal early education, though desirable, isn’t going to change the unemployment problem.
Twenty years into Georgia’s “model” lottery-funded free pre-K program, Georgia’s teen unemployment rate is getting worse -- now third worst in the nation, more than 20 percent. And that’s only counting those teens looking for work in proportion to those working. What about those teens not looking for work, many of whom we see on Macon’s streets? They’re not even being counted. So much for free pre-K. So what’s a better idea?
Let’s get serious about the real unemployment problem. We have millions of undereducated people without readiness for high-skill work, many of whom aren’t technically “unemployed” because they aren’t even looking for work.
Both parties have good points about unemployment. The government could help foster employment, say the Democrats. The government’s getting in the way, say the Republicans. Both are true.
If the parties could acknowledge the merits of the other side’s insights, we could launch an immediate-impact jobs program, while simultaneously easing off of the welfare-style programs on the margins.
What’s stopping us? One challenge is that we need programs to reach all communities nationwide. So what does every community have, beside too many unemployed people?
Here’s a starter list: Roofs, energy needs, roads, children and older folks who’d also appreciate personal care.
Tomorrow, we could give even-handed federal incentives for all homeowners to put solar panels on roofs nationwide -- without favoring political cronies like Solyndra. We could encourage any private employer to employ solar panel installers and solar factory workers, meanwhile turning every homeowner into a mini power company.
Tomorrow, we could give free rides to people willing to get off the dole, but can’t get to work. We could hire other unemployed people to drive. We could give nonworking parents free child care if the parents are willing to work, meanwhile employing good caretakers.
We could penalize companies who make money in the U.S. from exporting every low-wage position imaginable.
On the welfare side, we could quit considering unemployment to be, in effect, a disability warranting permanent Social Security disability status. We could encourage millions of capable working-age adults who aren’t being counted as unemployed to start looking for work by lightening up on their public sources of support. We could rethink the outrageous food stamp disaster that is fattening our poor up for their own kill.
In short, we could do a lot of simple things right now that could, overall, change the trend of a declining working population, and get America back to work.
I know I’m riffing. But why isn’t Washington thinking more creatively and cooperatively?
Oedel studies and teaches at Mercer University Law School.