When it Comes to Job Numbers, “Don’t Believe the Hype!”

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I remember getting into Public Enemy when I was in high school. That’s because of the wonderful band Rage Against The Machine, who themselves were inspired by Public Enemy. So the transition from one band to another makes a ton of sense for my teenage self.

Anyways, that’s the reference.

And here’s the article that I’ll be talking about today. It’s a bit out of date, it’s from 2018, but hey, things aren’t any better right now! So let’s just pretend we’re living in a good(?) year!

In a healthy economy in which one job can provide for a family and meet basic living expenses, a 3.7 percent unemployment rate would certainly be fantastic economic news. As ABC News reported, the unemployment rate hasn’t been this low in 49 years. September’s unemployment rate is just two-tenths of a point higher than the 3.5 percent unemployment rate recorded in 1969, when the American auto industry was at its peak.

But of course the kicker is: These unemployment rates don’t care how people are employed, just that they are employed. It’s a value that these kinds of studies (and the media itself) don’t account for because it doesn’t really matter to the GDP how you’re producing value. As long as you are producing it, that’s the important thing! Working a shitty job you hate just so you can make the rent? Well, feel grateful you have a job, come on! What about all those other homeless people?

This toxic mentality makes it hard for folks to feel like they’ve deserved much of anything in their life or that they shouldn’t be getting more jobs/work. What about monetizing your passions and making that your part-time job? Not to mention doing that in addition to the full-time job you should so clearly feel thankful for. How many people don’t have full-time jobs? Come on!

Again, this is a terrible framing and it makes it so much easier for people who are in fact hard working to feel lazy or crummy about their lives and efforts. When unemployment statistics ignore these cultural norms that have been built up over centuries, they end up being more than useless, they end up being actively harmful. It lures people into a false sense of security about the economy, when the reality is that there are so many problems here:

For example, while the federal minimum wage remains a paltry $7.25/hour, the minimum wage would actually be $16/hour today had it risen at the same rate as the cost of living from 1968 to 2018, according to Andrew Pacitti, an assistant professor of economics at Siena College.

In late May, the United Way’s ALICE Project (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) project found that approximately 43 percent of the U.S. population — or 51 million American households — are unable to afford basic necessities like housing, food, healthcare, transportation, communications, and child care with their current monthly income. And last year, 44 percent of Americans say they would be unable to cover an unexpected $400 expense — say, an emergency room visit or a broken alternator — without having to borrow from someone or sell their possessions.

These are just two major issues to think about when consulting these kinds of “positive” reports. What about those who are employed with toxic bosses? Those who are employed in jobs they actively hate or make them feel bad? Jobs folks don’t feel passionate about or wish they could quit but they can’t afford to? What if some people have one okay job and two other jobs they absolutely hate? All of these situations and more are possible in such a blind report.

I’m in a fortunate situation where I’m able to get by on a part-time job because I live with three other people. But this really shouldn’t be a “fortunate” position because I only do that by minimizing expenses and going to food banks as much as possible before COVID happened. I am only able to sustain this lifestyle because, frankly, I’m a cheapskate and I don’t like buying a lot of things unless I really need it or it’s a video game I really want (or book). Other than that I usually (hypothetically) ask friends and family members to help me with streaming services or find My Own Way of getting media that I can’t find on Youtube.

I’m doing pretty well but my situation isn’t really that great at the same time.

Sure, I don’t need multiple jobs but that’s only because I live with 3 other people in the same apartment. It can get crowded, smelly and unpleasant when you’ve got 4 people in one place in the Summer! Not only that but it’s tough to have your own sense of space when you’re living with roommates. Which is a necessity in today’s economy given the statistics cited above. But not everyone wants roommates and that means they have to find more jobs or strike a deal with a landlord, find somewhere super cheap, one really good and stable job, etc.

In other words, the economy tells us we must go to huge lengths just to find some sense of stability and independence from others. Not that living with others can’t be great! My roommates (including my partner) are generally pretty great folks. But I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I’d like to live with a couple less people at this point and am ready to explore other living situations. But that’s just not a realistic option under today’s economy. But hey, who cares right?

People have jobs!

Hooray!

Question Mark?

Economists have, in the recent past, cast doubt on glowing jobs numbers given the harsh reality millions of struggling Americans face when attempting to reconcile stangant wages with rising costs of living. In August of 2017, macroeconomic consultant Komal Sri-Kumar penned an op-ed for Business Insider cautioning Americans to withhold their optimism about a July 2017 jobs report that showed the unemployment rate had hit a 16-year low.

Sri-Kumar argued that even though the economy had technically recovered, the “recovery” applied almost exclusively to investors, rather than typical wage earners.

And this is the other big caveat to studies like this. Although it’s true that employment has gone down, who does this benefit exactly? It benefits those at top to the detriment of those at the bottom, no surprise there! So not only is this study harmful because it glorifies toxic cultural norms surrounding work but it also glorifies sacrificing our well-being for those at the top.

But hey, at least we’re all employed, right?


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