The Campaign Spot

Media Finally Notices Shrinking Workforce

I have been arguing that the recent slide in the unemployment rate is driven more by Americans leaving the workforce than by actual hiring of the unemployed. Finally, big media — as in, the front page of USA Today — notices, although they’re looking at annual data instead of month-to-month data:

The share of the population that is working fell to its lowest level last year since women started entering the workforce in large numbers three decades ago, a USA TODAY analysis finds.

Only 45.4% of Americans had jobs in 2010, the lowest rate since 1983 and down from a peak of 49.3% in 2000. Last year, just 66.8% of men had jobs, the lowest on record.

The bad economy, an aging population and a plateau in women working are contributing to changes that pose serious challenges for financing the nation’s social programs.

We’re enduring a painful, fundamental, and hopefully not permanent change in the working life of Americans.

Yet yesterday, Obama attacked Ryan’s deficit-reduction plan and declared:

But the way this plan achieves those goals would lead to a fundamentally different America than the one we’ve known certainly in my lifetime. In fact, I think it would be fundamentally different than what we’ve known throughout our history . . .

This vision is less about reducing the deficit than it is about changing the basic social compact in America. Ronald Reagan’s own budget director said, there’s nothing “serious” or “courageous” about this plan. There’s nothing serious about a plan that claims to reduce the deficit by spending a trillion dollars on tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires. And I don’t think there’s anything courageous about asking for sacrifice from those who can least afford it and don’t have any clout on Capitol Hill. That’s not a vision of the America I know. The America I know is generous and compassionate. It’s a land of opportunity and optimism.

Who’s really changing the America we’ve known in our lifetimes? Since 1950, we’ve had unemployment above 8 percent exactly twice, in the mid-70s and early 1980s. Both were milder than the current recession, and both ended with economic booms. Instead, under this president, we’ve spent trillions and we still limp along, told to celebrate every time unemployment drops a tenth of a percentage point, as more Americans endure soaring foreclosure rates and a “scorched” housing market, and more require government assistance. As noted earlier, we’re in an era of much higher state and local taxes. The era of $4- to $5-per-gallon gas will eat up a lot of those ever-scarcer discretionary dollars this summer; yet another year of Americans cutting back on their summer vacations.

“Changing the basic social compact,” Mr. President? Look around you when you’re on your way to your next top-dollar fundraiser with NBA stars, lobster hors d’oeuvres, seared Maine diver sea scallops, and rosemary braised short ribs. American life is already changing; you and your policies have ushered in the New Era of Diminished Expectations.

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