A Jarring Disconnect

In his latest speeches on the Middle East, President Obama, both at the State Department and at the G8 meeting in France, has pledged billions of dollars in economic aid to Middle Eastern countries, drawing a direct connection between the unrest and demonstrations that brought down the dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, and the joblessness and hopelessness felt by the young people in those two countries.

His adviser on international economics, David Lipton, has been more specific, saying that, “We believe that these two pillars go hand in hand. Without economic modernization, it will be hard for governments trying to democratize to show people that democracy delivers.”

Unemployment in Egypt among young men and women is about 30%. In Tunisia, it is over 40%. The White House claims that with figures like that, the future for democracy in those countries is tenuous.

But wait a minute. What about the US? Unemployment and underemployment here is still up around 20% overall, and it is much higher among young people. Black youth unemployment fell so far in 2011 to an official rate of 44% from 50% last year! Among Latino youth, the official unemployment rate is stuck at around 30%. Overall, youth unemployment, according to the official Labor Department figures, is 20%, but remember, the official rate does not count those who are working part time who want full-time work, and does not count those who have given up looking for work. Among young people, it may be that many who work part-time (those who live at home or who are in school or college) actually are not looking for full-time work, so that upward adjustment may not be as great as for older workers, but at the same time, there are certainly more young people who give up looking for jobs than is the case with older workers who have families to support. In any event, it is clear that all these youth unemployment figures are actually too low by a significant amount.

If the official rate of unemployment for all Americans of 9% is actually less than half of the actual rate of 20%, then even if we took a conservative estimate, simply eliminating the adjustment of those working part-time who want full-time work from the youth unemployment figure, and just keeping the adjustment for those who have dropped out of the labor force (stopped looking for work) because it is fruitless, we would still see actual unemployment figures for young people in the US at staggering Egypt-like levels: 30% for all young people, 45% for young Latinos, and as high as 66% for black youth!

So why is the president so concerned about providing economic support to boost jobs in countries like Tunisia and Egypt, in order to “support democracy,” while in here in the US, he has basically thrown in the towel on job creation efforts, and is just talking about cutting the deficit–a Republican theme? Cutting the deficit, even as economists are increasingly warning that the so-called “recovery” is sputtering, is a recipe for even worse unemployment.

The answer can be found by looking at the way the young have reacted to joblessness in Egypt and Tunisia on the one hand, and in the US on the other.

In Egypt and Tunisia, they took to the streets and stood down police and soldiers, ultimately bringing down their governments.

Here in the US, young people, like their parents, are largely quiescent. Their reaction to the frustrations of joblessness tend to be either self-destructive (drugs and alcohol) or anti-social (gang activity or crime).

If they were to band together and take over city squares to demand action by government to give them jobs, to provide them with access to college funding, etc., they would get the same kind of attention and help from local and state governments and from the White House and Congress that Egyptian and Tunisian youth are getting from the G8 countries.

Sure, they’d have to face down police armed with tear gas and batons, just like their compatriots in Tunisia and Egypt had to do, but once aroused, motivated and organized, young people have the stamina and courage to do that.

What is lacking is any real effort to organize these frustrated and angry young people, and to get them out into the street. The traditional groups that would have done this in the past–the labor movement, civil rights organizations, and political groups on the left–have been somehow neutered. Their focus, such as it is, is on now on elections, on recall campaigns, and on the coming 2012 presidential contest. It is not on organizing unemployed young people.

Expecting the White House to act on this crisis of long-term joblessness and diminished expectations for the future among young workers is foolish. The Obama administration knows what the problem is. It just doesn’t care.

As an “unnamed White House official” put it at a press briefing recently,
“I think it’s important to note that the political movements of nonviolent protests that we’ve seen are rooted in part in a lack of opportunity in the region. You have very large populations of young people, many of whom — too many of whom cannot find a job. You have a history not just of political rights being restricted but of economic corruption that has also frustrated opportunity.

“So we think it’s important to note that some of the protests in the region are deeply rooted in a lack of individual opportunity and economic growth, as well as a suppression of political rights.

“We also know from our study of the past that successful transitions to democracy depend in part on strong foundations for prosperity, and that reinforcing economic growth is an important way of reinforcing a democratic transition.”

That analysis clearly applies equally to the impoverished inner cities of the US, and indeed increasingly to the entire population of young Americans, who are seeing national policies, state policies and corporate lobbying — all focused on cutting taxes and boosting corporate profits — rob them of their futures.

And so it will be, unless and until the youth of America do what Bob Marley long ago advised: “Get up, stand up, stand up for their rights.”

DAVE LINDORFF is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, the new independent, collectively-owned, journalist-run, reader-supported online alternative newspaper approaching its one-year anniversary of daily publication.


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Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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