Thursday, April 23, 2009

Employment Issues & the Specter of a Permanent Underclass

The ABA has a book, Fair Measure: Toward Effective Attorney Evaluations. The book actually came out last August, but they featured it on their blog today, with an eye-catching come-on, asking, "Do Women Lawyers Receive Fair Treatment in Their Performance Evaluations?"

Most gender bias is subtle rather than overt, however. What appears to be a facially neutral, objective, job-related evaluation process may in application lead to lower scores for female lawyers that are not justified by on-the-job performance. As a result, many talented female lawyers receive lower compensation, lower bonuses, fewer opportunities, a delay in or removal from partnership track, or outright termination.
I was actually reminded by this of something I heard or read, but cannot find now, to the effect that unemployment claims heard by magistrates were found to be awarded very unevenly between claims by women and men. The disparity was only recognized and corrected when the claim process was transferred to telephones and an automatic system. Without conscious intent, apparently, magistrates tended to feel that women did not need the unemployment benefits and should not receive them for any number of reasons. The magistrates had enough discretion to make such findings. The system, once automated, removed the gender issue from the table, and suddenly, it was discovered that women were receiving far more benefits than they had before. (I simply cannot recall or locate where I heard or read this -- what kind of librarian am I?!)

But in the search for that info, I stumbled across something else. That's what kind of librarian I am! I'm a distractible one. This Newsweek article from April 11, 2009, about job cuts, "We Are Not In This Together." Author Zachary Karabell writes that the job cuts have not struck evenly across the demographic spectrum. Despite the screaming headlines in the ABA Journal and on this blog and others in legal areas, white collar jobs are not really the core areas where job cuts are happening. And in fact, that is why we are all so shocked by the job cuts at firms, and stunned when they even cut partner jobs, isn't it? We aren't used to having folks like us pink slipped.
The unemployment rate, now 8.5 percent, is likely to hit double digits over the coming months. (snip)

But there is a dirty secret about unemployment. We may feel united by a common anxiety about losing our jobs, but we are not all in this together. Unemployment is not a scythe that cuts equally through different sectors of society, felling white collar and blue collar, African-American and Hispanic, male and female, in equal measure. Young, minority men working in jobs that didn't pay much to begin with are suffering more than their white-collar counterparts. The unemployment rate for those over 25 with a college degree was 4.3 percent—half the national rate, according to the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics report. For those college-educated and white, the number was 2.3 percent at the end of 2008, the most recent available for that demographic. On the other end of the spectrum, the unemployment rate for African-Americans over the age of 16 was 13.3 percent, and for Hispanics, 11.4 percent. For anyone without a high-school diploma, the rate was 13.3 percent. Minorities and the less educated have always suffered more during downturns, but the disparity has become more stark.

The job ax is falling hard on men in general. For men over 20, the unemployment rate is 8.8 percent; for women, it is 7 percent. In the mid-1970s, by way of comparison, the figures were nearly opposite. In today's market, the sectors that are shedding employees—construction, manufacturing, industry—have a higher proportion of male workers, many of whom do not need advanced degrees for their jobs. These industries are being hit not simply by the current crisis but by the combined effects of technology and globalization.

The unemployment statistics raise uncomfortable questions about race and economic inequities. Failure to recognize the implications of the data has serious ramifications not just for social policy, but also for economic forecasting. Such a failure can lead to faulty predictions about consumer spending, credit-card defaults, commercial real-estate prices and retail-business bankruptcies. When we portray job loss as indiscriminate, we are in danger of overestimating its economic consequences while downplaying its social costs.

This is where the discussion enters politically treacherous waters. When you consider information from the Census Bureau along with unemployment numbers, another division becomes clear: many of those who have lost their jobs weren't earning much money to begin with. As of 2008, the highest quintile of income earners in the United States accounted for 50 percent of all income in the country, while the bottom 40 percent of the population accounted for 12 percent. Unemployment is predominantly affecting those who were struggling long before the current crisis. While loss of an income can be a tragedy for those families, they were never the primary source of consumer spending, small-business creation or any other crucial aspect of economic activity.

As companies continue their move away from industrial and manual-labor jobs, and accelerate the migration to a service-based, global economy, we may find a permanent pool of millions of unemployed in the midst of an economy that is otherwise doing well. The massive spending plans may succeed in preserving better jobs, yet do little to bring back the jobs that have been lost. Obama and Congress could face millions of angry and disillusioned, unemployed men—men who are young but still old enough to vote. For now, they are placing their hopes and their faith in a visionary leader. But if they see none of the benefits of those actions, they may turn elsewhere, and the dirty little secret of unemployment will be a secret no more.
This really is not about law librarianship, is it? Except that we will see these people as they come to ask questions about law. And that we are part of the world, and interested in justice, I suppose. This permanent underclass actually has roots back at least 20 years, in my humble opinion, in the Reagan "morning in America" trickle down economic bunkum. Then, of course, it got a big push with NATO and the off-shoring of factory jobs across the country as industries found they could set up maquiladoras in Mexico and pay a fraction of what they paid in Flint or Toledo, and skip all those annoying regulations at the same time! You might be able to make arguments about it having origins before the 1980's, too. But it certainly is accelerating in the current economic crisis. I don't know about where you live, but beggars are a regular part of Boston street life. They were pretty normal around St. Louis U. when I worked there 1986-1996, too. (I found the image at, Nov. 19, 2008, but it's not attributed).

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