The Blog of the Frances Perkins Center

Kirstin Downey says, “Statistics mask real economic pain”

In Political world on February 6, 2010 at 4:52 pm

Were you cheered by the reported drop in the jobless rate yesterday? In Fredericksburg.com, Frances Perkins Center board member Kirstin Downey reflected on the drop of 0.3 percent. While you should read the entire article, let me share a few highlights:

But the fact is that private-sector employment actually looks worse than durinig the Great Depression. If you compare the numbers with 1933, more than a third of U.S. workers are jobless today. And government officials don’t seem willing to face the situation.

In 1933, 25% of the working population meant 12.8 million people were out of work in a workforce of about 51 million. That included senior citizens, because only about 10% of older people had pensions in those years before Social Security.

Now, the federal government says we have an estimated 14.8 million unemployed, out of a work force of about 154 million. But that number is artificially lower than in the Great Depression because 33 million senior citizens are on Social Security — and not seeking jobs as they were then. An additional 7.4 million adults receive disability payments under Social Security, and some would also have been seeking work in 1933.

But that’s not all. We have a far larger standing military than in 1933 — about 1 percent of the work force, or 1.4 million men and women.

Another 1.6 million people are in jails and prisons, a near-record amount, and again a larger percentage of able-bodied U.S. residents than in 1933. They are excluded from the statistics today.

In other words, 43.4 million people are paid for government employment in the military, or supported through government programs. If added to the jobless numbers, it equals about 58 million people.

She goes on to discuss the fact that economic conditions are worsening for a large number of people. “On Thursday, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that 480,000 additional people filed for unemployment insurance last week. That’s 10.4 million people now on unemployment, up from 7.2 million in December 2008.”

Comparing today to the 1930s, she points out that:

The big difference now is that despair is masked. Social Security and the expansions of unemployment insurance mean that people are able to keep the wolf from the door. The bread lines of the 1930s are food banks.

We can all thank Frances Perkins and her New Deal colleagues for the programs that are keeping so many of us from outright destitution. But she cautions that “the American people are so angry at their leaders. They know that many of the government statistics are often just statistical sleight-of-hand.” Her article shows just how dire the crisis is–it’s truly as bad as it feels to us.

[Kirstin Downey, a former economics reporter at The Washington Post, is the author of “The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life and Legacy of Frances Perkins, Social Security, Unemployment Compensation and the Minimum Wage,” out this month as an Anchor trade paperback.]

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