Our government decided over fifteen years ago that certain citizens, categorized as “long-term discouraged workers,” do not exist. The category exists, but the citizens don’t. When the Bureau of Labor or other entities give the numbers of the unemployed, these men and woman are excluded: they are not there. They are our government’s version of the Disappeared.
Strangely enough, though out of work, they do not belong to the category of “the unemployed.” The Disappeared (according to an excellent article in DailyFinance) consist of those who “had pursued jobs in the past 12 months but, discouraged by the lack of opportunity, had stopped looking altogether.”
Now how, exactly, does the United States Government know that all these people stopped job-hunting? Gave up for good? Are stretched out in the recliner in front of the TV with a beer, or more likely in front of no TV with no beer and no recliner due to lack of income, and have been lying there for months? Does the Bureau of Labor Statistics knock on their door (assuming they haven’t been foreclosed and evicted and still have a door) and come in, and ask, and observe them for a week or two to see if they are or are not going out looking for a job? Well, no. The statistics on unemployment are gathered rather more indirectly than that.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics counts as “unemployed” only people who have “actively looked for a job in the previous four weeks.” The number of people in the category, “the unemployed,” is based on the number of reports of frequent, continuous job-hunting, which people out of work are required to submit, in order to qualify for unemployment benefits – up until the set date when those benefits cease. After that, the unemployed cease to be even the unemployed. They cease to be counted. They disappear.
And yet the government knows something about them. It knows, for certain, that not one single one of them is looking for work. It knows so because it says so.
It seems odd that people would stop looking for work just the very moment when the dole they were getting by on stops. But remember! They are not the unemployed. They are not even people. They are a category: “the long-term discouraged.” Clearly a negligible category — slobs, louts, layabouts, no entrepreneurial spirit, no good ole American get up and go. They aren’t counted because, frankly, they don’t count.
Currently, around two and a half million American citizens don’t count.
It’s an amazing effective trick, replacing human beings with categories. The statistics present us the highly managed category “the unemployed” as a reality; editorial writers and TV pundits intone it over and over; and it’s only too easy to accept it — until you realise it entails the belief that two and half million unemployed Americans aren’t looking for a job, won’t look for a job, wouldn’t look for one if there were any to look for. Do you believe that?
The trick was perfected in 1994 to pad employment figures. It has worked beautifully ever since.
It allows the government to keep telling us that unemployment is “only” around 9% . The actual figure, once the padding is removed, is certainly over 16% and probably over 22% — very near the worst days of the 1930’s.
It allows the government not to provide job opportunities and works projects. Who needs ’em?
It allows the government to let people starve. Starve? Who? Them? But they don’t exist!
Even if they did exist they’d be so lazy they wouldn’t even vote. Forget ’em.
Some of these non-existent Americans have been visible, recently, joining the tent cities and demos of Occupy America. (But don’t worry, those discontented liberal whine-ins never get anywhere. We’re still testing bombs, we’re still in Viet Nam, racial segregation is still enforced by law, and this recession’s a blip that trickle-down will fix in no time. And it’s morning in America.)
What I don’t know is, how do we refuse to play along any longer — how to demand that the Bureau of Labor Statistics stop padding and give us an honest count? I guess it begins by simply refusing the padded figure every time we hear or see it — correcting it, protesting aloud. Lies grow in the silence of those who hear them.
Ursula K. Le Guin is a founding member of Book View Cafe. Her most recent book is Out Here: Poems and Images from Steens Mountain Country, co-authored with photographer Roger Dorband.
She contributed an original poem, “In England in the Fifties,” to Book View Cafe’s anthology Breaking Waves, which benefits the Gulf Coast Oil Spill Fund.