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COVID Recovery: A Deeper Look

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By David Hamilton
November 7, 2021

The employment data confirms it. The American economy is back following the initial destabilization created by the COVID-19 pandemic. Based on numbers released by the Department of Labor, “The official unemployment rate fell to 4.8%, the lowest it’s been since its frightening climb to 14.7% when the COVID-19 pandemic first struck the United States,” according to a recent article published in the Guardian. On the surface, based on the general statistics, it would seem that all is well and that the economy is trending to return to pre-pandemic levels of employment both by percentage of unemployed  and by actual numbers of those employed. Good news for our important middle class, which depends on self-employment or a job to maintain its vibrancy.

Yet the same report provides details on important sub groups within the labor market. Viewed in this way, the report portrays a less optimistic picture, discernable by disaggregating the larger numbers.  Among the unemployed, the number of permanent job losers declined but was 953,000 higher than in February 2020. The number of persons on temporary layoff was 374,000 above the February 2020 level. The number of re-entrants to the labor force decreased by 198,000.  Perhaps of greater importance, the number of long-term unemployed (those jobless for 27 weeks or more) decreased to 2.7 million but was 1.6 million higher than in February 2020, accounting for 34.5% of the total unemployed in September.

Other categories portray those that are not counted within the full-time labor force for various reasons yet are potentially employable. In September, the number of persons employed part time for economic reasons was 4.5 million, an increase of 100,000 since February 2020. These individuals, who would have preferred full-time employment, were working part time because their hours had been reduced or they were unable to find full-time jobs. The number of persons not in the labor force who currently want a job was 6.0 million in September, up by 959,000 since February 2020.

Among those not in the labor force who wanted a job, the number of persons marginally attached to the labor force edged up to 1.7 million in September, following a decline in the prior month. The number of discouraged workers, a subset of the marginally attached who believed that no jobs were available for them, was 450,000 in September; little changed from the previous month. Taken together, these various sub-groups represent a large number of Americans that are either not working or working to their full potential.  

But even raw numbers can be misleading. Numbers and percentages tell only a small part of a much larger story, providing little to guide long-term implications and policy formation for public administrators. Writing in the Washington Post on October 7, 2021, Heather Long and Andrew Van Dam revealed other facets of the American labor market that demonstrate the unevenness and inequity built into our social structures. Not surprisingly, they pivot around three common themes that divide America; race, gender and education. Taken together, they present an alarmingly high number of 13.4 million potentially productive citizens that are not working.

At this point, 8.4 million Americans are still actively looking for work and another 5 million have given up on job hunting and dropped out of the labor force completely. Those having the hardest time finding jobs are less-educated Americans and Black women of all education levels. Similarly, the Black unemployment rate, at 8.8%, remains nearly double the White unemployment rate.

The article continued to describe some of the reasons for these troubling numbers: “Interviews conducted with women of color looking for jobs revealed roadblocks. The most frequently mentioned problems include child-care struggles, health concerns, overlooked and ignored online applications and too many jobs that pay minimum wage or barely above it.” How these long-standing problems are addressed remains to be seen, but our track record of effective social policy does not provide assurance. Recent examples include the proposal by President Biden to address child care responsibilities that could help to overcome one of the barriers, but this is yet to be approved by the byzantine budget process of the federal government. But even if it becomes a federal program, implementation is not assured by our 50 state governments, especially those such as Florida and Texas that have demonstrated hostility to programs targeted to assist the unemployed or underemployed. In addition, policies in the President’s budget that were intended to assist historically black institutions of education were dropped, leaving the racial education gap to be sorted out at some unknown future date. When viewed from its disaggregated facets, our economy and the jobs it provides have not fully recovered and are unlikely to do so until we address the socially relevant issues that impede them.

Author: Dr. David Hamilton is a strategic leader experienced in managing county and city governments. He holds a Doctorate in Public Administration degree from Hamline University focused on the administrative challenges created by rapid-growth in Edge Counties and metropolitan areas.  He heads his own consulting firm guiding governments and organizations in community visioning, strategic planning and capacity building and serves on the Executive Council of the Suncoast Chapter of ASPA, based in the Tampa Bay region of Florida. Contact: [email protected]

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