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Weekly Audit: Unemployment fueling political storm

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Unemployment figures in the U.S. are staggering: The official rate stands at 10.2%, the highest in 26 years. A broader measure that includes people who are involuntarily working part-time or who have given up looking for work is at 17.5%. That’s a full-blown economic emergency.

But, as Joshua Holland explains for AlterNet, President Barack Obama’s response to the unemployment crisis has not matched the urgency of his response to the crisis on Wall Street. This isn’t just unfair, it’s bad economics.

“It’s important to understand that the economic crisis in which we find ourselves is not just a function of a shaky financial system but of a crash in consumption that’s come along with the evaporation of $14 trillion worth of the wealth of American families,” Holland writes.

Widespread joblessness can be every bit as damaging to the economic structure as a financial crisis. When people are out of work, they buckle down on household expenses. When several million people cut back at the same time, the economic machine grinds to a halt. If people are not buying and selling stuff, the economy isn’t working.

As Mary Kane explains for The Washington Independent, about 40% of families don’t have enough money to cover expenses through a three-month stretch of unemployment—even if one member of the household is receiving unemployment benefits. Kane highlights a Brandeis University study that reveals the haggard state of the American household and the unfair distribution of wealth along racial lines. A full 66% of African-American and Latino families can’t afford three months without work. At a time when 5.6 million workers have been jobless for at least six months, the study highlights just how dire finances have become for many households.

GRITtv’s Laura Flanders discusses potential labor market remedies with economist Dean Baker and The Nation’s John Nichols. Baker suggests a work-share arrangement, in which employers cut back on their workers’ hours to allow more people to work. To prevent losses for households, the government would step in and pay for the shortfall in hours. Employers would have more part-time jobs available, but the government would make sure everyone was paid as if they were working full-time. Baker also endorses a public jobs program, which he says could be especially useful in cities like Detroit and Cleveland that have been hit particularly hard by the economic downturn.

Nichols highlights the political consequences of failing to fix the unemployment mess. Unemployment directly affects the lives of voters. If widespread joblessness persists through November 2010, Democrats will net huge Congressional losses. If Obama thinks it’s hard to garner bipartisan support for his legislative priorities now, imagine a few dozen more Republican obstructionists.

It’s not that Obama failed to respond to the unemployment crisis. He did. That’s what the stimulus package was all about. Today’s 10.2% unemployment is a catastrophe, but it would be more like 12% without the stimulus package. But, given the seriousness of the issue, Obama is not giving unemployment enough attention.

In fact, Obama’s economic priorities are a mirror-image of his campaign promises, as Robert Scheer argues in both a column for TruthDig and an interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! After talking tough about reining in recklessness on Wall Street and making the financial system more accountable, Obama has hired many of the very policy makers who pushed through the deregulatory agenda back in the 1990s. Top Obama administration officials like Larry Summers, Timothy Geithner, Gary Gensler and Neal Wolin helped make this mess in the first place.

“This is not a minor criticism,” Scheer says. “I think the guy is betraying his own presidency.”

Obama’s timid efforts to rein in Wall Street and heal the ailing job market are setting the stage for a political disaster. If Obama and Congressional Democrats can’t take strong action to fix the economy, they will find themselves with much narrower majorities next November. The economy, and the public institutions that support it, are supposed to work for everyone, not just the financial elite.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the economy by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Audit for a complete list of articles on economic issues, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Mulch, The Pulse and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

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