Skip to main content

Out of jobs, out of benefits, out of luck

By David Frum, CNN Contributor
updated 3:30 PM EST, Mon December 30, 2013
Job seekers attend a job fair in Chicago in 2012. When the doors opened at 9 a.m., the line was half a mile long.
Job seekers attend a job fair in Chicago in 2012. When the doors opened at 9 a.m., the line was half a mile long.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • David Frum: Mass joblessness isn't going away; wages are falling
  • Frum: U.S. used to provide minimal benefits but lots of jobs, but not now
  • Public-sector hiring is helpful, he says, but how many can government employ or afford?
  • Frum: Cuts to food stamp and unemployment benefits punish jobless when no jobs exist

Editor's note: David Frum, a CNN contributor, is a contributing editor at The Daily Beast. He is the author of eight books, including a new novel, "Patriots," and a post-election e-book, "Why Romney Lost." Frum was a special assistant to President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2002.

(CNN) -- The old deal made rough sense.

The United States would provide only a very thin social-insurance cushion for people of working age, but jobs would always be available. Critics might deride the jobs as McJobs: often poorly paid, often offering scanty benefits. But better McJobs than No Jobs. To anyone who proposed tighter job protections or more generous social benefits workers came the crushing answer, "Do you want us to be like Europe?"

While American generated tens of millions of low-wage service jobs, the economies of Europe struggled hard not to lose jobs, even during good times. The tradeoff was patiently explained by free-market economists and is by now familiar to us all. More job rules mean less jobs; fewer rules will bring more jobs.

David Frum
David Frum

And for a quarter-century, from 1982 until 2007, the old deal held true. Wages didn't rise much, but demand for nurses' aides, fast food servers and other low-wage service workers surged and surged -- so much that for the first time since 1913, the United States again found itself welcoming a mass immigration of poor people, arriving legally and illegally from Guadalajara and Guangzhou, eager to accept America's abundant $9-an-hour jobs.

Then, suddenly, the old deal broke down. It broke down as abruptly, as utterly and as seemingly irretrievably as a previous old deal broke in 1929. Mass and long-term joblessness characterize the U.S. economy of 2014 as surely as plentiful low-wage jobs characterized the U.S. economy of 15 years ago. Look at the output statistics, and the United States has recovered from the crisis of 2008. Look at the job numbers, and it seems the United States never will.

What are Americans to think of and do about their new economic dispensation?

One answer is to deny that the dispensation is new at all.

Republicans in Congress are working to repeal the emergency job benefits put in place in 2009, on the familiar theory that if we quit paying the unemployed, they'll stop being unemployed. Extended unemployment insurance coverage lapsed on Saturday; 1.3 million long-term jobless lost benefits that day, and those still receiving benefits will lose them if they remain without work for longer than 26 weeks.

Food stamp coverage has been cut once and will probably be cut again in 2014. Proposals to raise the minimum wage gain no hearing in the Republican-majority House of Representatives, whose members condemn such proposals as job-killers.

Yet these familiar arguments bump into an unfamiliar situation. Almost six years after the economic collapse of 2008, the ratio of job seekers to unfilled positions -- which peaked at 5.5 to 1 -- has declined to 2.9 to 1, a ratio that would until now have indicated severe recession.

Stocks rally on strong jobs report
Jobs report better than expected

The huge backlog of unemployed workers exerts downward pressure on the wages of those still working. The old employment deal seems a formula for a massive write-off of the great majority of working Americans lacking specialized skills.

On the other hand, nobody seems to offer any credible new deal. Some cities and towns are experimenting with higher minimum wages. That may put money in the pockets of some workers at Wal-Mart and Starbucks. But people who can't find work at $9 won't find it easier to find work if their price is raised to $12.

In a major economic address delivered in Osawatomie, Kansas, in 2011, President Obama speculated that more public-sector hiring might do the trick. But how many people can government employ? And how sustainable is it for government to raise its payroll at exactly the same time as it is also shouldering the rising costs of Medicare and Social Security for retiring baby boomers?

These are questions that will dominate American politics for years to come. As the European experience of the 1990s sadly reminds us, mass prolonged unemployment is not a problem that recedes rapidly in a peacetime economy. People who have been out of work would find it hard to return to work even in a strong job market -- and this job market remains desperately weak.

What we can at least do is refrain from further penalizing people whose problems nobody knows how to fix.

People who can't work still must eat. Americans in distress have a claim on the rest of the nation. Extend unemployment insurance. Sustain food stamps. While we're looking for a new deal, at least quit deluding ourselves that the old deal is still operable. It's not. It has passed on, from everywhere except our increasingly outdated memories.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Frum.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT