Monday, September 17, 2012

Employing the Unemployment Debate

by Whitney Taylor

This past Saturday, Melissa Harris-Perry, host of her show on MSNBC, was involved in a lively on-air debate with one of her guests when the topic of welfare payments arose. The crux of contention erupted when conversation angled towards welfare recipients being viewed as lazy and taking advantage of a social safety net that some have come to believe is an overused and abused government program.

But where has this backlash come from and why?

Prior to the financial crisis of 2008, unemployment numbers and reports were of little concern with the average consumer, but today our perspectives and interests have changed. The economy is no longer growing at the rate it used to, household budgets are squeezed and we are all feeling the pinch at the gas pump. Employment numbers are now an indicator of economic and personal health.

Across the US and the EU, unemployment has become an acute issue. Last Friday, the University of Illinois hosted Professor Irma Mooi-Reci who gave a lecture titled “The Career Disadvantage of Unemployment Across Age and Sex: Germany As A Case Study”; her lecture and research focused on factors that she found to contribute to unemployment trends.

Source: Michael Nagle of Bloomberg News, 8-30-2012
Her findings show that those most affected by unemployment tend to be in the 18-25 and 51-65 age categories. Gender became a significant factor, but as her research focused on Germany, their cultural influences of how men and women’s roles in society are perceived and accepted played a key part in that distinction.

In the United States, women who play an active role in the workforce has become a culturally accepted norm. Nevertheless, there exist biases throughout the United States and across Europe when the subject of unemployment arises. It becomes de rigueur to find a scapegoat to blame; greedy corporations sending jobs overseas or across borders, government austerity measures cutting into personnel budgets, lack of access to retraining programs, and a variety of other arguments. However a problem that Professor Mooi-Reci touched upon that is becoming more noteworthy is how people who have been unemployed for extended periods of time are able to recover and regain employment?
Political Cartoon by Tom Toles for the Washington Post, 6-25-2012

This trend has been termed “structural unemployment” – a lingering mismatch between jobs available and those unemployed who seek work. Potential workers become disenfranchised with the job market, lose traction in their competitive advantage and some drop out of the market altogether. This begs the question that so many of us have today: what are the proper solutions to prolonged unemployment? Do we need to create better training programs? Should social safety nets such as welfare be extended and expanded? Are unemployment benefits hurting the unemployed rather than helping them?

These are complicated and tough questions, but with a lagging economy and unemployment rates flat lining, these questions, however tenuous and combative they may be, create debate and conversation that may yield options and solutions; a question that as we face the upcoming Presidential election in November, suggest we have much to consider.

Whitney Taylor is a Master's Candidate in European Union Studies at Illinois where she is also completing a minor in Corporate Governance and International Business. Currently, she is researching financial regulation and corporate social responsibility within the EU and US. 

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