Unemployment and Its Symptoms

If the recession were a bout of the flu, we would be at about that point where the fever has broken—but we still feel like throwing up most of the time. The “recovery,” now in its fifth year, has yet to deliver the kind of job or wage growth sufficient to lend the term anything but the narrowest technical meaning. Things are no longer getting worse, but they are not getting much better either.

The simplest and starkest measure, on this score, is the glacial progress of job recovery—which so far has barely kept pace with those joining or returning to the labor force. But that is only part of the story. Unemployment has been accompanied by a number of troubling weaknesses in the labor market. And progress on each of these (summarized in the graphic below) has been even slower.

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While employment rose from 4.5 to 10 percent as the recession took hold, long-term unemployment (the share of the unemployed who were without work for more than twenty-seven weeks) shot from 16 percent to 45 percent. And while the unemployment rate has slipped back to 7.6 percent, the long-term unemployment share—at 37 percent—is still more than double its pre-recession level.

In the weakening labor market, the share of part-time work also rose, from about 16 percent to about 20 percent of all employment. And in the weak recovery, this share has stuck—hovering at around 20 percent ever since. Some workers want part-time work, but it is pretty clear that this is a recessionary hangover. The share of “involuntary” part-time workers (those who want full-time work but can’t get it) doubled during the recession— from 16 percent to over 33 percent—and is still around 30 percent.

Some of this is captured in the underemployment rate, an alternative measure that counts involuntary part-timers and marginally-attached workers (those who are not currently working or looking for work but would if economic conditions were better) alongside the unemployed. The underemployment rate peaked at over 17 percent in late 2009 and early 2010, and—at 14.3 percent—is now near double the conventional unemployment rate.

Finally, the insured unemployment rate (the share of workers that are unemployed and drawing unemployment benefits) captures the economic and politics of the last business cycle. At the depth of the recession, about 5 percent of the labor force was unemployed and drawing benefits. Today, four years into a recovery punctuated by federal sequestration and a carnival of nastiness in state politics, only 2.3 percent are unemployed and currently covered. The rate of unemployment is falling slowly. But the rate of unemployment that we are doing anything about is dropping like a stone.


Colin Gordon is a professor of history at the University of Iowa. He writes widely on the history of American public policy and is the author, most recently, of Growing Apart: A Political History of American Inequality, published by the Institute for Policy Studies at www.inequality.org



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The Kurds

[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015

The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  

Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.

Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.

Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.

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