Of late I’ve been more than a little obsessed with employment: the future of employment on a structural level; the effects employment and unemployment have on individuals and families; and the impact of employment on the political system.
I read an article in the Atlantic which piqued my interest. It said that America was the most anxious country in the world, and adults pegged jobs as their top source of stress. Okay, seems obvious. But this is what really intrigued me:
Despite the fact that most Americans believe our country is still The Land of Opportunity, the greatest meritocracy in the world, the United States is actually a terrible place for fortune-seekers. Chris Hayes, author of the new book Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy, notes that when citizens of different countries are polled about their perception of how easy it is to start off poor and work their way up to wealth, “the U.S. is near or at the top in terms of people who say ‘yes.’ And yet it is also near the bottom in terms of actual social mobility.”
Part of me wants to buy into this neat explanation, but I think the question goes even deeper — the question, that is, of what we do with the unemployed in America. The United States has the biggest prison population and the highest incarceration rate in the world. And, lo and behold!, incarcerated people are not counted in the most common unemployment statistics, the ones you hear solemnly touted every month. For years, astronomical incarceration rate has led to a variety of social outcomes including voter disenfranchisement (a record 5.85 million Americans — one in every forty citizens — cannot vote because of felony disenfranchisement laws). It enriches some private correctional corporations; and has a ripple effect on the life opportunities disproportionately of poor Americans and non-white Americans, as they face unequal arrest, prosecution, and conviction rates.
Incarceration is also deeply linked to America’s job crisis. Not only is it extremely difficult for former felons to find meaningful work, there is, again, the question of who is treated as a criminal, and who gets off for “youthful indiscretions.” (Several of our former presidents come to mind — under different circumstances, Presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama would all have criminal records or faced more severe penalties for everything from drunk driving to marijuana to cocaine use.)
But let me not drift too far from the topic at hand — employment. If the highest leaders in the land can survive youthful indiscretions and go on to arguably the toughest job in America, then there are probably people in America’s jails and prisons who could be gainfully employed, not just at menial tasks but high levels. However, in a nation with a jobs crisis, reaching full employment (in economic terms, a jobless rate of 5.5 percent or less) would be even tougher if we took on much-needed criminal justice reform.
Which leads me to the question: do we really, as nation, want full employment for all? If so, we have to deal not only with job creation, but with the factors underpinning societal disparities including incarceration. During an event at the Schomburg Library in New York earlier this year, Harvard Law Professor Randall Kennedy said that, while he supported the President, he could not imagine a black President — including this black President — mounting significant criminal justice reform. Crime + race = third rail. Do you agree?
In Letters to a Young Poet, Rainier Maria Rilke urges: …”love the questions themselves…” and “Live the questions now.” I’d love to hear what you think about the questions I raise.