In the weeks since the "shellacking" of the November 2 election, there has been much talk that the economy will turn around and, indeed, is on the mend. The indicators are better, both pundits and experts have been saying. The recession is over, according to these indicators, and it is unlikely that we have a double dip recession. The stock market has done well this year. So why is the unemployment rate so high?
The November unemployment rate numbers went up, not down. Now at 9.8 percent we are only two-tenths of a percentage point lower than this time a year ago. No wonder voters rejected Democrats at the polls in November. If there is progress it has come far too slowly, and all Americans are taking it in the pocketbook.
What does 9.8 percent unemployment translate into? It translates into a whole heck of a lot of human misery. It translates into 15.1 million people who want jobs but can't find them, 6.3 million who haven't worked for at least half a year. It means that the marginal attachment to the labor force is rising, with 2.5 million now part of that group. It means that the traditionally reported black unemployment rate is now 16 percent, 16.7 percent for African American men, and 13.1 percent for African American women. And Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke says we might have to live with unemployment rates this high for another few years, and that rates might not return to the "normal" 5 or 6 percent until 2015.
Of course, the 9.8 percent that is reported totally understates the reality of the situation. Including discouraged workers and others, the unemployment rate is closer to 16.3 percent, and thus closer to 30 percent for African Americans. The enormity of this problem in the African American community is staggering and gives one the sense that the Senate and Congress are fiddling, figuratively as Rome burns, much less figuratively, in the African American community.
Extending unemployment benefits, then, has become a political football. And there has been little attention focused on the possibility of job creation. If Bernanke is saying that we can expect to live with high unemployment rates for quite some time, then it is irresponsible for Congress to ignore joblessness because they want to balance budgets. Meanwhile, many are gearing up to celebrate the season, while others simply want to work, but the jobs aren't there. To be sure, there will be a few new jobs this month in the retail sector as retailers desperately attempt to stimulate consumer sales. "Black Friday", the traditional big day for shopping seems to have gone over with a thud, though there will be new data out in mid December. So far, though preliminary data say that Black Friday sales were up by about 2 percent, but prices have been dropped so significantly that profits have been hurt. But profits haven't been as hurt as employment has. People are hurting, and they aren't getting the results they need from those policy makers who could alleviate their pain.
There will be people caroling and crooning through the New Year, celebrating the joy of a season that must be celebrated. We manage our lives around these rituals, these mysteries of faith, this time of the year when life grinds to a halt and we recognize humanity, human values, the birth of the Christ child, and the coming of winter solstice. And yet, while some croon, others will struggle to celebrate, scraping pennies together to come up with some semblance of celebration, because they have children so barraged by commercialism that they equate the end of the year with gifts and goodies.
So on one hand we have people pricing what the 12 days of Christmas would cost today and others are poring through the pricey Neiman Marcus catalog; some folks just want jobs for Christmas. Maybe this Congress will manage things so that more than a few are granted their wish.
Dr. Julianne Malveaux is a noted economist and president of Bennett College for Women.