Worse Than Ever
The Path of Unemployment
By DEAN BAKER
It has been two-and-a-half years since the recession officially began in the United States. While the economy has been growing for more than a year, unemployment remains near the 10.1 percent peak of October 2009. Few economists predict a rapid decline from its June level of 9.5 percent and, with stimulus being phased down over the next year, it is very plausible that the rate will edge higher in coming months.
The US, unlike most western European countries, is not set up to sustain long periods of high unemployment. Its system of social welfare is very much centered on work. This is most evident with health care. The vast majority of non-elderly people get their health care through employer provided health insurance. Individual policies tend to be very expensive, especially for people with any history of medical problems. When people lose their jobs, they generally lose their health care coverage as well. While there is a public program for low-income families, it doesn’t cover most of the unemployed, and the quality is often quite poor.
The same is true of other forms of public support. The US was never very generous to people who are not working, and it has become less so in the last three decades. That is why the prospect of a prolonged period of high unemployment in the US is likely to mean serious hardship for large numbers of people.
The unemployment seen in this recession is already as bad as in the worst previous post-war recession, and it is almost certain to linger much longer. In the 1981-82 recession, unemployment in the US peaked at 10.8 percent in December 1982. However, the economy turned sharply upward at the beginning of 1983, and the unemployment rate fell back quickly. By July 1983 the unemployment rate was down to 9.4 percent, and it had fallen to 8.3 percent by the end of the year. more