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Underemployed -- and Invisible

Underemployment, the economic measure combining the percentage of unemployed workers with the percentage of part-timers desirious of full-time work, is something that most of us (but politicans in particular) generally ignore.

Even the White House, which, rhetorically at least, has lately given a lot of attention to unemployment, has been negligent on this front. In President Obama's widely-lauded December 6 speech in Osawatomie, Kansas, he made not a single reference to underemployment -- in a state with combined unemployment and underemployment rate 12.4 percent.

From a political standpoint, that makes sense. Selling the public a story of diminishing unemployment, now at 8.6 percent, is the sort of "morning in America" narrative that may get the President reelected. Should, however, the focus turn to the massively stagnant workforce, beating the Republican nominee becomes significantly more difficult. The problem is that such selectivity has a deleterious effect on the country's health.

The numbers are staggering. Politics aside, perhaps we don't hear much about the 18.1 percent underemployment because the public fails to appreciate either what it's like to be underemployed, or the difference in the quality of life afforded by full-time job versus a part-time job. Luckily, last year Gallup conducted extensive polling on the underemployed. The conclusions were distressing.

  • 42 percent of respondents said they were thriving while 54% said they were struggling. 4% were suffering.
  • 54% said they experienced worry, 27% said sadness, 20% said anger, while 50% were stressed.
  • A fifth suffer from depression.

Gallup also found that the underemployed were far less likely to inject capital into the economy, spending 36 percent less than the employed.

In short, if we continue to tune out the underemployed, we will prolong this feedback loop of misery: They'll continue to suffer, they won't spend money, and they won't be acknowledged; so they'll continue to suffer, they won't spend money, and they won't be acknowledged...

How do we break this cycle? One promise solution lies in work-share programs, which we have written about before here. These programs compensate employers who reduce hours for workers, but don't fire them. Work-sharing payments let employers retain workers even as they lower their labor costs during a downturn. Just as importantly, they allow more workers to retain the dignity, benefits, and involvements associated with real jobs even though they aren't working for full-time.

There just isn't enough work to go around right now in America. Beyond the obvious imperative for more government stimulus, we need to think creatively about how to stretch the work that does exist to cover more workers.