We think of the iconic images of the Great Depression as representative of a uniquely miserable period, long vanished from American history. The bread lines and soup kitchens of those abnormal times have gone. So, too, has the sight of thousands of men (there were very few women among them then) waiting all day outside a factory in a forlorn quest for work.
But they’re there still, in the many millions across the country—little changed in their total since the 1930s: 12.3 million today are fully unemployed, compared to 12.8 million in 1933 at the depth of the depression. The difference is that now they’re invisible, because we’ve organized relief differently. In our “recovery,” the millions are being assisted, out of sight, by the government, through unemployment checks, Social Security disability checks, and food stamps. More than 47 million Americans are in the food stamp program, some 15 percent of the total population, compared with the 7.9 percent participation in food stamps from 1970 to 2000. Then there are the more than 11 million Americans who are collecting checks from Social Security to compensate for disability, a record. Half of them have signed on since President Obama came to office. Twenty years ago, one person was on disability for every 35 workers; today, the ratio is one for every 16. Such an increase is simply impossible to explain by disability experienced during employment, for it is inconceivable that work in America has become so much more dangerous. For many, this program is another unemployment program, only this time it is without end.
But the predicament of our times is worse than that, and worse in its way than the 1930s figures might suggest. Employers are either shortening the workweek or asking employees to take unpaid leave in unprecedented numbers. Neither those on disability nor those on leave are included in the unemployment numbers. The labor market, which peaked in November 2007 when there were 139,143,000 jobs, now encompasses only 132,705,000 workers, a drop of 6.4 million jobs from the peak. The only work that has increased is part-time work, and that is because it allows employers to reduce costs through a diminished benefit package or none at all.