Not better, not back to normal: Five graphs on the U.S. economy

by Tim W. Shenk
Committee on U.S.-Latin American Relations (CUSLAR)

Based on a talk given to leaders of the New York State Poor People’s Campaign, February 24, 2021.

While the pandemic has cost workers around the world $3.7 trillion in lost wages, billionaires have accumulated $3.9 trillion in new wealth. It’s important for us to try to understand what’s going on in the economy. The U.S. economy is still the largest in the world, and being able to make a clear assessment of its direction and the suffering wrought is essential to understanding political strategy in organizing today. While it’s no longer true that the U.S. is the stand-alone global leader, recessions here still shake every other national economy in its shadow.

We need to go beneath the surface of the numbers we’re given in the major news media. This stuff is too crucial to leave to professional economists or policy wonks. Regular people can learn how to understand the economy! We certainly feel it when we’re hurting. We feel it when we’re on the edge of crisis and dealing with one emergency after another. 

Understanding a few things about the direction of the economy can help us not feel ashamed of our own situation and see that it’s not our fault. Studying economic trends from a perspective of people who are hurting can make it clear that it’s the system that needs to be fought and dismantled. Seeing the direction of society toward more impoverishment and inequality can inform our collective strategy about how to turn things around.

So, the graphs. First, recall the more than 20 million unemployment claims in March and April last year. That’s the long red line down into the negative on the right side. That absolutely dwarfed anything we’d ever seen in this country in that short a time. For comparison, the devastating 2008 crisis barely registers as a blip in terms of jobs lost. Initial unemployment claims are still coming in at 700,000 to 800,000 per week, for a total of almost 80 million since March 14, 2020. This means that almost half of the U.S. workforce has filed for unemployment in the last year.

The second graph measures Labor Force Participation Rate. This is a much better measure of who’s actually working than the unemployment rate, which is now officially down to 6.3%. That rate of unemployment makes it sound like only 6 out of every 100 people aren’t working, but that’s quite misleading. The Labor Force Participation Rate shows only 61 percent of adults are an active part of the paid labor force in this country. That has been a downward trend over the last 30 years as automation advances in more and more industries. 

The pandemic has only accelerated that trend, as businesses scramble to implement technologies that will allow them to keep making profits whether or not they have human workers. If only slightly over half of adults are able to find paid work, how are the rest of people going to make ends meet? This will be an ongoing, deepening crisis as long as our society is based on people needing a job in order to get what we need to survive.

The third graph says, “Job Loss Persists for Low Wage Workers in the U.S.” It shows that not everyone has been affected equally by the pandemic, and that those who can least afford to be out of work are the ones out of work. It says that fewer than half of the jobs lost in the pandemic have returned for people making less than $20 an hour.

This is astounding. If you’re in that category, please stop feeling bad that you haven’t been able to find work. It’s not your fault — the jobs just aren’t there to be found. 

People who have less work or no work are also more likely to be essential workers or gig workers who need to take any SLJ (shitty little job) that comes along, because they can’t afford not to. They are then more exposed to the coronavirus on a regular basis, and therefore will likely have medical bills in addition to credit card debt and back rent. U.S. renters owed $70 billion in back rent in December, according to Bloomberg, and 11.4 million households are more than three months behind on rent. How are any of these debts going to be paid if there are no jobs? We say, debts that can’t be paid won’t be paid and must be relieved.

The fourth graph shows racial disparity of unemployment over the course of the pandemic. The rate of unemployment started higher for Black workers than whites, and it continues considerably higher. We need to understand that higher unemployment, higher premature death, and higher levels of incarceration and hunger, among many other disparities in society, are all symptoms of systemic racism. Racism is not just about calling someone a name. It has everything to do with a system of oppression and exploitation that makes people of color poorer and die younger than white people. 

The fifth graph shows the total number of people who had died of COVID through December 8 last year. The long blue line at the bottom, which adds up to more than all other racial and ethnic groups combined, is white people. So no less important than disparity is the total raw numbers. Racial disparity where a lot of mainstream and liberal analysis ends. The unsaid assumption is that if people of color were as well off as white people, justice would be done. Well, this graph reveals how badly white people are doing, too, under the current system. It’s completely unacceptable that everyone would have “only” the white unemployment rate, poverty rate, premature death rate, rate of hunger among children, etc. 

When we say “everybody’s got a right to live,” we don’t mean that all people have the right to be equally exploited and discarded. We aren’t trying for a multicultural capitalism. So that’s why, in addition to data on disparities, we also need to see the raw numbers of those who are hurting.

Poor white people are a massive percentage of the population that we cannot afford to abandon to hate groups and political extremism. Most poor whites aren’t part of a hate group, and a majority of them doesn’t vote. That, of course, doesn’t mean that we look the other way when we see someone act out white supremacy. It just means that we practice fusion politics. We recognize that everyone who is hurting has a material stake in bringing down this poverty-producing, death-dealing system, and we organize accordingly.

Tim W. Shenk is a member of the New York State Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.

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