The Human Suffering That Even Bad Jobs Numbers Hide from Us

A Brandon Motor Lodge displays a “Help Wanted” sign in Brandon, Fla., June 1, 2021. (Octavio Jones/Reuters)
We don’t see the struggles of those who aren’t returning to work. And government benefits are no substitute for concern that they can live meaningful lives.

Last week, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released unemployment data for the month of May, revealing how anemic the path to personal and economic recovery continues to be for so many. Following the abysmal report for April, which showed that nonfarm payroll numbers for the U.S. as a whole had been just 266,000 — well below the estimate of 1 million — the new number for May also came in below estimates, at 559,000 nonfarm payrolls. Economists had predicted around 675,000 new jobs.

As we process the consistent streak of disappointing numbers, we must remember that each number represents the life of someone who is struggling. On the positive side, there are 559,000 people who have reentered the workforce. Yet on the other hand, there are millions of people who are being robbed of the opportunity to experience the purpose, meaning, and belonging that one derives from being engaged in work.

To be clear, lower-than-expected numbers are not due to a lack of available jobs. There were 8.1 million open positions across the country at the end of March. And the dismal numbers were not due to a lack of people who need work. In May, there were 15.4 million claims for some form of unemployment assistance. (That number includes some duplicates, but the figure is still staggering.) The bottom line is that our country is still 10.8 million jobs short of where we would be if the pandemic and lockdowns had not occurred. In addition, 5.3 million people are working part-time but wanting full-time work.

Plenty of finger-pointing in response to this news continues apace. Are these poor numbers due to expansive unemployment benefits and cash payments that have encouraged people to stay out of work? Lack of child-care options that have kept moms, forced to teach their kids at home, out of the workforce? Continued fears of catching COVID-19?

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While each of these are doubtless factors, nothing has done more to discourage employment than our well-intended but misguided attempts to offer support through safety-net programs or expanded cash benefits during the lockdowns. Indeed, by exhaustively focusing on these measures, we risk missing the central point of what these payroll numbers may be telling us about the damaging effect our safety-net infrastructure is having on a loss of human dignity in our culture — a role it has played for at least a few generations now.

What do I mean? Simply put: We continue to fall into the trap of viewing the joblessness epidemic in strictly financial terms, as if a job were only a means to a paycheck. A paycheck is important, but we know that work is about so much more. It’s one of the best pathways in life to achieving a sense of pride, purpose, and meaning because it connects us to something larger than ourselves. It also provides us with some of the most important and meaningful relationships that we will ever have, in addition offering social networks and social capital that can help us navigate a variety of struggles in our lives.

Perpetually relying on government assistance robs us of the dignity, the social network, and the experience that we need to thrive. The safety net is important, but for work-capable adults, it should only be a bridge to what’s next — not a way of life.

We know this from research. It’s no surprise that the Brookings Institution has found lower life satisfaction among those who rely on public or private charity but greater life satisfaction among those who earn a wage.

We even see this play out when people have enough money to simply leave the workforce. Some retired people report lower life satisfaction after leaving work because their job was a source of pride, social connection, and meaning in life.

During the darkest days of the pandemic and lockdowns in 2020, pundits were speculating that we were on the cusp of another Great Depression. While used as an economic term, the real great depression was experienced by those suffering with mental-health problems generated by the lockdown and being out of work.

In February, researchers at the University of California San Francisco estimated that more than 30,000 Americans have died between spring 2020 and spring 2021 because of mental-health challenges caused by lockdown-induced un- or under-employment.

The safety net and COVID-relief efforts can help people survive, but they cannot ensure that they thrive. They can meet material needs for a time, but they cannot provide meaning in the same way that work can. Indeed, our current system is stifling something much deeper than merely economic growth and employment.

Some argue that enhanced unemployment benefits do not discourage workers from returning to the labor force. But consider that when enhanced federal unemployment benefits were cut from $600 a week to $300 in late summer of 2020, we witnessed a surge in employment in the fall. Suddenly, remaining on the unemployment rolls was less attractive and more people wanted to leap back into the labor force. Other factors contributed, of course, but reduced benefits undoubtedly played a role.

Government measurements of well-being are almost always limited to material considerations, not emotional, social, or spiritual ones. Put differently, these measurements focus exclusively on the bottom layer of Maslow’s Hierarchy: basic needs. To live fully, however, is to develop a sense of well-being from all six layers of that hierarchy, including from measurements of psychological well-being and self-fulfillment.

When our policies have the effect of keeping people out of the workforce and somewhat confined to their homes and neighborhoods — requiring that they derive their means of survival from government support — we shut them off from sources of social and economic mobility. At a time when concerns about equality have been heightened, it’s important that the avenues to achieving a better life are kept open for all, with on-ramps from every walk of life.

Supporting expansion of benefits may make us feel better and appease our collective conscience, but it often has the effect of keeping the poor “out of sight and out of mind.” Rather than being encouraged and empowered to access the economic and social life that we’ve sought for ourselves and our loved ones, the poor are often left to imagine, from a distance, what an upwardly mobile life must be like.

In the end, while we may think our hearts and minds are open to the poor and our intentions pure, we may be closing pathways to opportunity for the poor by giving too much and expecting too little.

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