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Full Employment for the Top 20 Percent

David Callahan

Dig into today's job numbers and you'll find a tale of two Americas. 

In one America, unemployment remains at catastrophically high levels. The African-American unemployment rate is 13.2 percent -- a level not seen for the U.S. as a whole since the Great Depression. The jobless rate for construction workers is 14.3 percent. 

And these statistics don't nearly capture how bad things are. The African-American unemployment rate has been over twenty percent in a number of states in recent years. And, as I have written here before, the most commonly used unemployment statistics don't capture how many people are discouraged, working part-time, or have simply dropped out of the labor force. Include all these folks, as the Labor Department does in its so-called U-6 rate, and more like 13.9 percent of Americans were unemployed last month. 

Meanwhile, though, there is another America with virtually full employment. And that is affluent white-collar America -- those roughly in the top twenty percent of households. 

According to the new jobs numbers, the unemployment rate for people in management, professional, and related occupations was at 3.5 percent last month -- below what economists consider full employment. 

If you're an older, college educated worker, the labor market is actually pretty good. The unemployment rate for college grads over 25 is just 3.9 percent. The Labor Department doesn't release data on the rate for those with a post-graduate degree, but you can bet it's even lower. 

The vastly different economic lives of better educated, professional Americans may explain a lot about the how the U.S. has handled the economy over the past few years. If you're in the top 20 percent, the bad economy is mainly something you've been reading about in the paper, not an experience you've likely been living. If you're in the bottom twenty percent, you've been living through something close to another Great Depression.

But guess who contributes most to politicians, votes at the highest levels, and more broadly shapes public debate through leadership positions? The fully employed class. No wonder job creation has taken a back seat to deficit reduction. 

Demos published a report earlier this year, "Stacked Deck," about how the affluent dominate politics thanks to their superior resources. This is a problem because, as the report showed, the affluent have different policy priorities than ordinary Americans. One reason for such different priorities is because they have different economic interests but also life experiences -- as the employment data makes clear. 

It's just not fair that those who are suffering the most also get heard the least in our democracy.