You Can't Fix Income Inequality Without Fixing Unemployment

Large-scale efforts to protect the economy's neediest have a triumphant history in America.

President Obama's speech today on income inequality was long and eloquent, but if I could boil it down to a one-sentence summary, it would be this: 

Large-scale efforts to protect the economy's neediest have a triumphant history in America.

Jump back a 100 years. Our problems are different—and much worse. 

  • Working conditions in turn-of-the-century industrial revolution are animalistic. So, Teddy Roosevelt and his successors fought for an eight-hour workday, introduced protections for workers, busted the trusts, and passed laws to end dangerous child labor. 
  • The Great Depression left millions in hopeless indigence. But it inspired Social Security, which has cut the poverty rate among seniors from 50 percent to less than 10 percent.
  • "Before Medicare, only half of all seniors had some form of health insurance," Obama said. "Today, virtually all do."
  • In the last 40 years, the expansion of tax credits has spared millions of families from living solely on market wages, which would have left them well below the poverty line. 

Obama uses this big-thinking triumphalism to make his case for the beleaguered Affordable Care Act. Indeed, universal care is a moral cause. But another issue arguably deserves even louder trumpeting: full employment.

There are still millions of people who are hopelessly out of work. Although short-term joblessness has fallen to its pre-recession levels, long-term joblessness is up 213 percent, and the official figures don't count workers who've simply quit, are waiting for Social Security, or hopped onto its disability program to collect a check. Matt Yglesias has it exactly right: The most important cause of 2013 is still jobs.

Presidents will always get more credit and more blame than they deserve, since they're the anointed figureheads of an impossibly complex system. It's easy to say Obama has signed few laws to help the unemployed recently, but then again, he has proposed programs, like the American Jobs Act, which disappeared into Washington's maw of indifference.

Social Security and Medicare, two of the most popular government programs today, work on the theory that there is a virtue to universalism. Obamacare is, well, slightly popular at the moment, but it works on the same principle. On jobs, however, it cannot be said the U.S. government has seriously considered universal (or, at least, full) employment anything near to a priority. We simply gave up early. It's good and right to talk about income inequality for American workers. But when 20 million people are unemployed or marginally attached to the labor force, you're going to have an awful income inequality crisis, no matter what your minimum and median wages look like.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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