Last June, there were 2.1 million Americans behind bars. Out of sight and
mind? The answer is yes when it comes to official unemployment figures.
A similar invisibility for the incarcerated was also the case in an April 27
New York Times report on workers out of a job for increasing periods of
time. Those locked up in U.S. jails and prisons were also locked out of
this report. Talk about perception management of the American economy.
The number of people incarcerated in the nation has quadrupled since the
mid-1970s, the New York Times editorialized on April 9. Today, the souring
job market would appear even worse if those held in the American gulag were
acknowledged as potential workers earning a salary or wage. But such is not
the case in government job statistics or flagship corporate media.
To be sure, the incarcerated do work. It's not called the prison-industrial
complex for nothing. Yet even when these human beings do toil outside of
their cells, they're not officially counted as being employed.
Meanwhile in America since 1973, the working day has increased 199 hours for
American workers, on average, according to a report last October 24 in the
NYT, citing data from the International Labor Organization. During the same
time period, the unionization rate of private-sector workers has tumbled
sharply as employers and the government have teamed up to beat up on unions.
These trends have been a boon for America's Fat Cats.
Their wealth accumulation has expanded almost beyond belief. This, in turn,
has rendered a growing section of the nation's work force increasingly
irrelevant to the U.S. economy. From Boston to Compton, these are the
throwaway people, no longer needed to labor for the creation of wealth held
by a few.
What are the social implications? Who is (not) asking this crucial
question? And why?
Currently, the U.S. economy is floundering. Some wits have called this a
"post-bubble" phase of the business cycle, following the hi-tech and stock
market meltdowns. In response, President Bush and Congress are fiddling
with the amount of new tax cuts for the super rich, presumably to re-start
One hears, reads and sees much about the need for business spending to
increase for job creation to improve. To be sure, this would help workers
of all genders and skin colors. Under a market economy, their labor-power
is a commodity that is sold and bought, bought and sold, depending on the
demand for it by business.
This market process is governed by the profitability of the few who own
society's productive assets such as factories, land and so forth. Some in
the GOP might call such an assertion evidence of "class warfare." But every
social story has at least two sides to it, and often more than that.
Under today's market economy, how much would business spending have to grow
to employ the 8.8 million Americans who were officially unemployed in April?
And for those living in U.S. jails and prisons who aren't counted in the
official jobless rate to be gainfully employed? One need not have the
answers to ask the questions.
Seth Sandronsky is an editor with Because People Matter, Sacramento's progressive newspaper.