Stop Pretending the Unemployment Problem Will Fix Itself If We Ignore It

What's the single best idea to jumpstart job creation?

To create more jobs in this country, we must confront how we think and feel about people who are unemployed. There is no shortage of ideas for creating jobs; what we lack is the will, and this lack is rooted in our investment in the notion that a person's ability to find work is a manifestation of their character. Our belief in the ethical legitimacy of our own society relies on our denial of a simple mathematical reality: we have more people living in the United States than we have jobs that pay a livable wage.

The Great Jobs Debate: An Atlantic/McKinsey Report

Unemployment is like the traffic accident or bomb blast we hear about on the morning news. We hear it but it doesn't register empathically. As long as the sufferer is far away, or at least no one we know, we don't imagine our bodies, or lives, in the wreckage. The occasional flash of detail might grab us for a moment, but the suffering of a stranger remains, in our imagination, categorically different from our own. The suffering stranger never has the same substance or the same value that we do.

In the case of unemployment, our emotional remoteness does not just reflect a failure of empathy. We are, as a culture, deeply invested in not identifying with people who cannot find a job. The reality of that experience would be too terrifying to bear, but even more: imagine the collective moral crisis that would ensue if we had to really confront the fact that we are doing nothing to intervene, that we are allowing people to languish indefinitely in this situation.

Instead we stigmatize them. Call it superstition or a coping mechanism; we turn people who fall victim to the traumas we fear the most into a sinister subspecies. They become the sort of people to whom that sort of thing happens. Through their actions, or inactions, they brought the damage upon themselves. They were born that way. It's in their family. It's in their culture.

They embody our deepest fears--of vulnerability, desperation, humiliation--and so they must be repudiated. The symptoms of their despair are proof of their immorality; their immorality means they deserve to suffer. And so we rationalize our indifference to suffering--over and over again.

The most horrific gesture of American political culture, when faced with the powerlessness of others, is to moralistically turn against those individuals instead of doing everything possible to relieve their suffering and empower them. In order to create jobs in this country, we need to overcome the deeply held fantasy that unemployment is both a sign of moral inferiority and part of some "natural order." We also need to learn to cope with how frightening it is to think empathetically about what it's like to be unemployed. Finally, we need to embrace job creation and full employment as a collective societal responsibility, and recognize the extraordinary potential of every human being.


Follow the debate here.

Presented by

Jody Lewen

Founder and executive director of the Prison University Project at San Quentin State Prison

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