Shocking: High School Grads Twice As Likely To Be Jobless Than College Grads – and Right-Wingers are Profiting From Their Pain

News & Politics

You know how bad the economy is, right? Maybe your 401(k) has tanked. Perhaps you were out of work for a few months. You could have a mortgage under water. Or your health insurance has an impossibly high deductible. Yeah, we're all singing the blues.

I've gotten out my violin to play a mournful accompaniment to our collective angst.

Wait, what's that I hear in the distance? A dissonant, thundering chord someone just hammered on the piano -- a harsh interruption of my languid dirge. Now it repeats, getting louder and nearer.

It's the sound of rage, of people I don't know -- millions of them -- unable to make rent or feed their families.  Why don't I know them? They don't have college degrees, and nearly everybody I know does.

The truth is, brothers and sisters, however much we the degreed are suffering, we don't know the half of it. And unless we familiarize ourselves with the other half very, very soon, what was supposed to be a new progressive era could quickly give way to the rage of the Tea Party.

We all know that unemployment is high -- 10 percent nationwide, and higher than that in certain geographic pockets. (Michigan tops the states with more than 15 percent.) Economists tell us that when you factor in all the underemployed people, and those who have given up looking for work, the national employment picture is more like 17 percent who are either out of work or barely working. But chances are, if you're at all like me, those numbers tell you that something's terribly wrong, but your day-to-day life is more or less holding together.  Those who do not possess a college diploma are having a far more visceral experience of this recession.

Among college graduates, the unemployment rate for October was 4.7 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (PDF). For people with some college or an Associate's degree, the rate is almost doubled, at 9 percent. Among high school graduates who never went to college, 11 percent are unemployed, while high-school drop-outs show a whopping 15.5 percent unemployed.

So, unless you know a lot of people who never graduated college, you really have no idea just how bad things are.

Maybe that's why the political establishment in Washington, D.C., was stunned last week when members of the Black Congressional Caucus came together in the House Financial Services Committee to halt a financial reform bill put together by committee Chairman Barney Frank, D-MA. While CBC members took issue with some specific provisions in the bill, the real intent of the caucus members' stalling was to protest the administration's lackluster response to the growing jobs crisis within their constituencies. (Among African Americans, the unemployment rate for October was 15.7 percent, according to BLS, compared to 9.5 percent for white people. According to a 2003 survey by the U.S. Census, 17 percent of blacks had college diplomas, compared to 27.2 percent of whites.)

A poll released last week by ABC News and the Washington Post found that 30 percent of Americans say that either they or someone in their household has lost a job in the past year, a finding the pollsters present as a new high. But, because it's an average, that figure tells only part of the story. Those losses are not evenly distributed across the economy; pollsters found that people living in households with income of less than $50,000 were twice as likely to have experienced a job loss by a member of their household than those with earnings above that threshold.

Among the unemployed, 90 percent describe themselves as stressed, according the ABC News/Washington Post poll. Of those stressed-out people, 58 percent say they're depressed, and 62 percent say they're angry. That's a lot of angry, depressed, stressed-out people.

The right is clearly much more aware of the popular unease, and its leaders are organizing, organizing, organizing. That's what the Tea Party movement is all about: it taps into that vein of seething discontent and redirects it toward racial resentment and distrust of the government. Using corporate dollars, leaders of the right have built an impressive infrastructure comprising two major astro-turfing groups -- Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks -- whose efforts are trumpeted through the megaphone of FOX News. Then there's the community organizing done by FOX's Glenn Beck through his own FOX television show, his radio show and his 912 Project Web site -- in addition to the free publicity granted AFP and FreedomWorks on nearly all the FOX News programs.

The left has been building its infrastructure, too, but it's one that speaks to the college-educated, full of smartypants Web sites and a couple of elite think tanks, largely populated by people like me -- and maybe you. By that I mean people who don't live day to day, among the struggling parents of four or five kids, parents who used to earn a living in retail, or driving the trucks that stock the stores, or cranking out the cars we used to drive to the stores. Our distance from this reality leads us to the realm of wonkery and big ideas, perhaps willing to scuttle a health care bill if it has no public option, even if it would secure health care to millions for whom it is now out of reach. We debate climate change and net neutrality, both of which seem hopelessly abstract to people who are facing eviction from their homes.

Meanwhile the administration is buckling to Republican pressure to trim the deficit -- at the very moment when we need deficit spending for the creation of a massive jobs program. If progressives put the same level of energy and resources into demanding a jobs program as they have a public health plan, the prospects for a progressive era would be greatly improved.

But what about the unions, you ask? Progressive leaders organize the working stiffs through labor unions, right? Well, not exactly. While unions expend plenty of muscle on behalf of working people -- and do it smarter and better than they have in the past -- unionized workers today account for only 12 percent of the workforce. And unions should not be expected to carry the burden alone of energizing the entire population of displaced workers around a larger political agenda.

When we progressives organize, we're largely organizing the educated, whose hard times lack the urgency of those without college diplomas. We are simply not present in their world. Progressive writers rarely appear on the opinion pages of local newspapers (with the notable exception of David Sirota), and the progressive movement is rarely represented on the local television news. And that's our fault. The truth is, we'd rather just talk to each other than engage with the people whose plight we claim we wish to improve.

You can't say that of the Tea Party crowd. Right-wing leaders found a way to empower local activists to act on the leaders' behalf. They gave them a banner under which to brand themselves, a narrative linked to a romantic notion of patriotism, and plenty of room to build cell groups at the local level, where their local events help to get them on the local newscast. Tea Partiers write letters to the editor of their local papers. And the right long ago made significant inroads into the op-ed pages of midsized newspapers via the big syndication services. (While newspaper circulation continues to fall, 45 percent of those whose education stopped with high school still read a daily newspaper.)

When Barack Obama won the presidency, the euphoria felt by progressives was understandable. But now it's grown-up time -- time to remember that millions of Americans voted for Obama only reluctantly. They weren't voting for the nation's first black president or for a progressive agenda; they were voting against the legacy of George W. Bush, under whose leadership the Republicans completely screwed up the economy. Unless progressives push Obama to deliver on jobs, and unless progressives reach out to the jobless to engage them in this fight, the Obama presidency could soon be regarded as a failed progressive experiment, full of arguments about abstract topics like cap-and-trade and net neutrality, a game of badminton played by elites, while in the big, bad coliseum of life, regular people are getting mauled.

In the meantime, the president's approval numbers are falling precipitously among white people and independents. Since his inauguration, Obama's approval numbers, according to a Gallup poll released this week, have fallen 22 points among whites.

It's time for liberal leaders to embark on a path that connects progressive goals to the plight of everyday people; one that channels the fierce urgency felt at the ground level to an enormous push for a major jobs program (and the deficit spending it will require), and that has progressives talking to people in their own neighborhoods via local media. More than anything, we need to get over the notion that we know how bad it is. Time to pull the iPod buds out of our ears and meet the thundering dissonance.

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