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Why Congress Doesn't Care About the Unemployed

March 3, 2011 - by Donny Shaw

The Nation’s Chris Hayes offers a good explanation for why most members of Congress don’t seem particularly concerned abut the high rates of unemployment we’ve been seeing and will probably continue to see for several years:

This disconnect between the jobs crisis in the country and the blithe dismissal thereof in Washington is the most incomprehensible aspect of the political moment. But I think there are two numbers that go a long way toward explaining it.

The first is 4.2. That’s the percentage of Americans with a four-year college degree who are unemployed. It’s less than half the official unemployment rate of 9 percent for the labor force as a whole and one-fourth the underemployment rate (which counts those who have given up looking for work or are working part time but want full-time work) of 16.1 percent. So while the overall economy continues to suffer through the worst labor market since the Great Depression, the elite centers of power have recovered. For those of us fortunate enough to have graduated from college—and to have escaped foreclosure or an underwater mortgage—normalcy has returned.

The other number is 5.7 percent. That’s the unemployment rate for the Washington/Arlington/Alexandria metro area and just so happens to be lowest among large metropolitan areas in the entire country. In 2010 the DC metro area added 57,000 jobs, more than any in the nation, and now boasts the hottest market for commercial office space. In other words: DC is booming. You can see it in the restaurants opening all over North West, the high prices that condos fetch in the real estate market and the general placid sense of bourgeois comfort that suffuses the affluent upper- and upper-middle-class pockets of the region.

What these two numbers add up to is a governing elite that is profoundly alienated from the lived experiences of the millions of Americans who are barely surviving the ravages of the Great Recession. As much as the pernicious influence of big money and the plutocrats’ pseudo-obsession with budget deficits, it is this social distance between decision-makers and citizens that explains the almost surreal detachment of the current Washington political conversation from the economic realities working-class, middle-class and poor people face.

Indeed, only 3 bills related to unemployment have been introduced so far this session, and none of them have advanced in the legislative process. Meanwhile, House Republicans held a meeting this morning to mark-up doomed legislation to restrict access to abortion services. And the Senate for their part has spent most of their time this session debating a bill to modernize the air traffic control system (S. 223).

It’s not that nobody in Congress cares. Some do. During the continuing resolution debate in the House Rep. Barbara Lee [D, CA-9] pushed for a vote on an amendment version of her H.R. 589, which would provide relief to the folks who have been hit hardest by the jobs crisis, but it was blocked by Republicans. Other non-germane amendments on things like defunding Planned Parenthood and undoing net neutrality rules were allowed a vote, however.

Since the unemployment rate began ticking up before the financial crisis hit, Congress as a whole hasn’t really engaged in any serious thinking about how to help the situation. They’ve been stuck in the same spot, having essentially the same debate over and over. For example, years later, not a single committee has even talked about taxing the financial companies that crashed the economy in order to provide relief and training for the people whose jobs they destroyed. In the insulated D.C. bubble, it’s the financial companies’ security that needs to be nurtured. They can’t see that they’re healthy and in fact bigger than they were when they were first declared “too big to fail.” In their day-to-day existence filled with finance-industry lobbyists and job-secure D.C.‘errs, it’s the corporations who are suffering, not the people.

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