US and UK unemployment: part of a global human tragedy

The dry statistics of unemployment figures tend to mask the human suffering that lies behind them: men and women losing the jobs that helped to define them, in some cases with little prospect of ever finding employment again; the dire effects on wives, husbands and children, and other dependents; the dizzy drop in living standards; the pressing danger of losing your home, perhaps for good; the consequences for your and your family’s physical and mental health; the loss of status and self-respect — and all resulting from changes in circumstances over which the victims have absolutely no control, and for which they have absolutely no responsibility.

Those dry figures give some idea of the sheer size of the disaster. The latest US job figures are terrible, although apparently not quite as bad as expected.  According to the Washington Post on 8 May 09, —

Unemployment Rate Jumps to 8.9 Percent
U.S. employers shed 539,000 jobs in April, less than expected.

The ranks of Americans looking for work continued to swell in April, as the nation’s unemployment rate rose to 8.9 percent, the Labor Department reported this morning.

Although it is the highest jobless rate since September, 1983, the pace of job losses slowed appreciably last month compared to February and March, another sign that the severe economic slump may be starting to ease.

The number of private sector jobs fell by 611,000 the report said, but that loss was offset somewhat by the addition of 72,000 government jobs — most of them connected with the 2010 census. The total of 539,000 jobs lost was slightly less than the 600,000 expected by analysts.

Some experts predicted the jobs report would beat expectations after the ADP Employment Report released earlier this week showed a job loss of 491,000 in April, far lower than the 600,000-plus tallies seen in prior months. [Emphasis added]

So in one month, in one country, around half a million Americans have lost their jobs — which probably means that some two million people (including dependents) have seen their lives reduced to ruins.  In just a month!

So far the UK figures are considerably less bad in percentage terms, although there’s always the malign possibility that we’ll catch up, and in any case they are appalling in themselves.  According to the Human Resource Management Guide, —

April 22 2009 – The [UK] unemployment rate rose to 6.7% — up 0.6% over the quarter and 1.5% on last year. 29.3 million people were in work in the period December to February according to the labour force survey (LFS). The number of people employed fell by 126,000 this quarter and down by 227,000 on the last year.

The working age employment rate is 73.8% – down 0.4% on the last quarter and down 1.1% on the last year.

ILO-defined unemployment in December to February was 2.1 million (6.7%) – up by 177,000 unemployed on the quarter and 486,000 from this time last year.

The claimant count for key out-of-work benefits was 1,464,100 in March – up by 73,700 on last month, and up 672,100 on last year.

When you consider that comparable numbers of working people have lost or are losing their jobs all over the western world, and in many other parts of the world, the cost of the ‘recession’ — or ‘slump’, as the Washington Post rightly calls it — in human misery for the (unnecessarily) unemployed and their families is truly tragic.  On top of this, the global economic collapse is doing even greater damage to the world’s poorest people in the developing world, especially in Africa.  As Owen Barder writes from Addis Ababa, —

Africa is least to blame for the crisis, but may be worst hit. There are three reasons for this:

  • Developing countries are disproportionately dependent on very volatile resources: earnings from primary commodities, private capital flows, remittances and aid; so a downturn in the world economy will hit their economies hard;
  • Developing countries have the least room for manoeuvre to offset these temporary effects: for example, they are less able to borrow. How is a cash-strapped developing country, constrained to pursue tight fiscal policies by donor conditions, supposed to respond to the downturn?
  • The effects on the welfare of people in developing countries as a result of these economic problems will be much bigger and more permanent than the corresponding effects on the people in industrialised countries. Most of them have no insurance or savings to fall back on, no safety net to catch them, nowhere to move to find a new job. If they cannot send their daughter to school, or sell their ox, the effect may be to plunge an entire generation into a lifetime of poverty.

It’s sickening to reflect that this huge disaster has been caused virtually entirely by the collapse of the free market financial system, not by global warming, harvest failures, floods, wildfires, pandemic, freak weather conditions, wars, meteor strike or the exhaustion of essential natural resources.  The miscalculations, short-termism, greed and lack of social responsibility of a handful of rich men in a tiny number of countries has visited this calamity on us.  There must be a better way.


1 Response

  1. 11 May, 2009

    […] Barder discusses the global tragedy of unemployment: The dry statistics of unemployment figures tend to mask the human suffering that lies behind them: […]

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