Unemployment, Education, and Voting

The unemployed are predominately poorly educated non-voters. Some argue that they are therefore getting far too little attention from the political class.

Ezra Klein provides this useful chart as a partial explanation for why “tax cuts for the nation’s very richest residents are commanding more political energy and consensus than unemployment insurance.”

Kevin Drum improves the chart thusly:

But Kevin overstates the case:

[T]his chart largely explains why sky-high unemployment hasn’t produced any real sense of urgency in our political class. It’s because unemployment is high among people who don’t vote and low among people who do. If the stock market were crashing or corporate profits were down, that would be one thing. But unemployment? It’s just not that big a deal.

While there’s not much doubt that politicians respond more to issues that voters — and, especially, donors — care about, it’s simply unfair to say that they think unemployment is “not that big a deal.”  Even if we dehumanize them as caring only about re-election, the fact of the matter is that the high unemployment rate creates massive anxiety among those who are employed, depresses the mood of the market, and generally results in vulnerable incumbents losing their seats.

An alternative view of the charts is that the unemployed are mostly people who’ve done an incredibly poor job of managing their own lives.

Let’s exclude from the discussion those over the age of, say, 60.  They came from an era when it was typical for working class men to drop out of school to help support the family and where one could expect to make a decent living working in a factory or doing manual labor.   But this cohort has to make up a tiny portion of the non-diploma unemployed.

In this day and age, it’s simply irresponsible not to finish high school — or at least get a GED.   Hell, you’re required by law to go to school through age 16.  How hard is it to hang around another year and get that diploma?

Further, it’s not clear what urgent action Congress should take about this problem. Even among the 16 percent or so of the population who dropped out of school, the employment rate is still around 84 percent!

Surely, we don’t want to devote substantial resources towards making low end jobs that don’t require some minimal education.  I’d support some sort of retraining program — if nothing else, subsidizing GED courses for the unemployed — if it could be done at reasonable cost.  But we already spend massive amounts of money funding education and encouraging — indeed, forcing! — young people to take advantage of it.   How much energy should we expend on those who refuse to help themselves?

FILED UNDER: General
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. steve says:

    “An alternative view of the charts is that the unemployed are mostly people who’ve done an incredibly poor job of managing their own lives.”

    Most of those people were working before this recession. They are willing to work, but the jobs are not available. I don’t think this is as homogeneous group as you portray (you probably do not either). Many left school to help family by taking a job. Some were just unlucky when they were younger. Some went off to serve in the military. I do think this points out the fallacy of the conservative fear that the poor are just voting themselves more benefits.

    I trust you are aware that unemployment is even higher for vets?

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/03/12/AR2010031204123.html

    Steve

  2. James Joyner says:

    Steve,

    Not sure what to do about Reserve and Guard soldiers who are hurt economically by repeated deployments. Obviously, fewer wars. But it’s the nature of RC duty: You may go years getting paid for nothing or you might get hosed; it’s cyclical.

    I’m guessing most of the long term unemployed prior to the recession were also in the low education cohort, no? But it’s not shocking that there would be greater contraction there.

  3. john personna says:

    I’d say the crucial number is this:

    Percentage of people a congressman has lunch with, who make less that $250K per year.

  4. Dave Schuler says:

    40% of students in Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York schools fail to graduate from high school on time. It’s unclear to me how additional spending on education will reach that group. It’s also unclear to me how our economy can produce jobs for people who don’t even have a high school education when unskilled workers abroad are earning a fraction of what people in the U. S. expect to make.

  5. mantis says:

    While there’s not much doubt that politicians respond more to issues that voters — and, especially, donors — care about, it’s simply unfair to say that they think unemployment is “not that big a deal.”

    You’re right. It’s only fair if they’re Republicans.

    Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), the chairwoman of the House Tea Party Caucus, said Republicans could balk at voting to extend all the tax cuts for two years if it’s tied to a long-term extension of jobless benefits.

    “I don’t know that Republicans would necessarily go along with that vote. That would be a very hard vote to take,” Bachmann said on conservative talker Sean Hannity’s radio show on Monday.

    Tax cuts for rich folks = important
    Unemployment benefits = not important, and so objectionable that they threaten the important thing

    Oh, and of course they consistently lie about the tax cuts while they’re at it:

    asked Bachmann why she would support a tax cut for the wealthiest but not throw her support behind unemployment benefits – she said that Americans have misconstrued who those “wealthiest” really are.

    “These are people who are carpet layers who maybe employ two or three other guys. Or a plumber maybe himself and his brother and it’s $250,000 in gross sales for the business.* They’re the ones that are looking at massive tax increases,” she told me.

    “This is a job killer if we raise taxes on the job creators,” she added.

    *Update: Bachmann said the $250,000 would apply to gross income. But an ABC News fact check shows her statement was incorrect- the $250,000 applies to taxable income.

    Stephanopoulos is too much of an idiot to know what he’s talking about and challenge Bachmann’s lies directly, so ABC has to “fact check” afterwards.

    Tell us more about how it’s so unfair to claim politicians don’t care about unemployment, James.

  6. Alex Knapp says:

    In this day and age, it’s simply irresponsible not to finish high school — or at least get a GED. Hell, you’re required by law to go to school through age 16. How hard is it to hang around another year and get that diploma?

    The question is rhetorical, but given that there are LARGE numbers of people who don’t, perhaps it’s harder than you think it is.

  7. john personna says:

    I think the main mistake is treating education as a spending question. It bugs me when people just say spend more, but it also bugs me when people say don’t spend more.

    Both are spending arguments, not education arguments.

  8. steve says:

    “I’m guessing most of the long term unemployed prior to the recession were also in the low education cohort, no? But it’s not shocking that there would be greater contraction there.”

    No, it is not. What is surprising then, is that large scale unemployment, mostly affecting low wage earners, would have such a negative effect on the economy. Maybe they are more important than we thought? Doesnt it mean that if businesses start creating new jobs, these are the people who will be getting hired? Well, those and the people with a HS education. Interesting fodder for the structural unemployment believers.

    Steve

  9. James Joyner says:

    @mantis

    I happen to support extending unemployment benefits given the woeful economy. But there’s a principled argument that indefinite benefits are a disincentive towards taking a low end job. And, certainly, there’s a principled argument that letting people keep more of the money that they earned is a quite different thing than forcing people to give more of the money they’ve earned to those who earn no money.

    Aside from that, however, there’s simple politics. Unemployment benefits were extended, as they were always going to be. Republicans simply used the occasion to leverage a better deal on an issue they care about.

    @Alex

    That large numbers of people make bad choices doesn’t mean that doing the right thing is necessarily outside their capability. Nor does it necessarily create a tremendous sense of urgency to help them avoid the consequences of their bad choices.

  10. mantis says:

    But there’s a principled argument that indefinite benefits are a disincentive towards taking a low end job.

    Such principled arguments are meaningless when the jobs aren’t there, and they aren’t there now. To use such arguments in times like this reveals a despicable, kick-them-while-they’re-down attitude toward the working class.

    And, certainly, there’s a principled argument that letting people keep more of the money that they earned is a quite different thing than forcing people to give more of the money they’ve earned to those who earn no money.

    Yes, and there’s a principled argument that those who massively benefit from doing business (or inheriting wealth) in the United States will be harmed if the economy is destroyed, and standing by and watching the rising numbers of unemployed Americans lose their homes and struggle to feed themselves and their children while you count your millions is a pretty sure way to make that happen. In any case, that’s not your argument. You say it’s not nice to say politicians don’t care about unemployment, when at least some of them clearly don’t care about the unemployed. Or maybe they care, but you know, principles. Sorry you’re out on the street and your kid’s hungry. We need our principles.

    Aside from that, however, there’s simple politics. Unemployment benefits were extended, as they were always going to be. Republicans simply used the occasion to leverage a better deal on an issue they care about.

    I don’t know if you noticed, but this hasn’t actually happened yet. Unemployment benefits have not been extended yet. Bachmann is promising opposition to this deal from the right. There are 52 members of the Tea Party Caucus.

  11. James Joyner says:

    @mantis

    I support extending benefits under present circumstances. But unemployment insurance was never intended to be a long-term welfare program but rather a short stopgap until people find work.

    I’m rather confident that the deal will go through, Bachmann’s opposition notwithstanding. The Republicans got what they wanted. And, while there’s always sturm und drang, we always wind up extending the benefits.

  12. mantis says:

    But unemployment insurance was never intended to be a long-term welfare program but rather a short stopgap until people find work.

    I know that. The gap just keeps hanging around though, doesn’t it?

    I’m rather confident that the deal will go through, Bachmann’s opposition notwithstanding. The Republicans got what they wanted. And, while there’s always sturm und drang, we always wind up extending the benefits.

    I hope you’re right. We’ll see if this Tea Party thing is an actual political force, or just a noisy segment of the Republican Party that will fall in line when ordered.

  13. Alex Knapp says:

    @James –

    That large numbers of people make bad choices doesn’t mean that doing the right thing is necessarily outside their capability. Nor does it necessarily create a tremendous sense of urgency to help them avoid the consequences of their bad choices.

    Until you know the reasons why people make the decision to drop out of high school, how can you judge that choice as bad?

    It’s easy for me to think of dropping out of high school as a “bad” choice. I’m in the third generation of college graduates in a white-collar family that hasn’t known divorce. But I’m lucky. I don’t know that I would have had the ability to graduate high school under different circumstances. Maybe I would have been able to. Maybe not. Unless you study the issue, how do you know?

  14. john personna says:

    “Until you know the reasons why people make the decision to drop out of high school, how can you judge that choice as bad?”

    My dad worked in inner city schools. Kids had little idea, no reference, for breakout success. Theirs was a community of drop-outs. Asked what college graduates earned, they guessed really, really, low.

  15. PD Shaw says:

    Part of the problem with the analysis is the unemployment rate varies greatly from state-to-state and region-to-region. For instance, it’s 3.8% in North Dakota. The unemployment extension programs provide full benefits to only about half the states (those with 8.5% or over).

    If the premise from Drum/Matt is that people are voting their interest, then it’s easy to see why a number of the more rural areas do not have that much interest in extending unemployment benefits.

  16. anjin-san says:

    > But there’s a principled argument that indefinite benefits are a disincentive towards taking a low end job.

    I think this point has some validity. The restaurant I liked to hand out at went bust about 18 months ago. The staffers who have something on the ball for the most part had jobs in a few weeks. A year later I was running into some of them that were still not working, and it struck me as something of a lifestyle choice. There are restaurant jobs in the bay area. Not as many as there once were, and not as profitable, but restaurants are opening and people are getting hired.

    I was in that business back in the day. If worse comes to worse, I can go back to it. I would hate it, but I can make 60K +, which beats the crap out of being unemployed. I support extending benefits, but I feel that it’s true many people stay on unemployment simply because they don’t want to take a job they see as a step (or several steps) down from where they were.

  17. k martinez says:

    I currently live in an area in Texas that has a HS dropout rate of around 50 percent. This is primarily because the dipshits of this area are pretty sure they don’t need any education. My daughter did a brief stint at the local public HS. When a teacher assigned a book for students to read and asked the class to open said book, they sat and stared. Books lay unopened. The teacher read aloud to the students because they would not read. Most of the female students at this HS already had at least one kid. I don’t live in ghetto. Just Texas. These dumb assholes actually fully deserve to suffer.

  18. Henry says:

    That’s a good question. I think that a small part of the reason is that teenage males, in particular, tend to view college as not necessary. Even the teen children of middle class parents tend to overestimate the career value of “street smarts” and underestimate the value of language or mathematical skills.

  19. ISOK says:

    Wow this post really nails it right on the head. Autonomous 16 year olds making decisions independent of their families’ immediate social or economic needs to drop out of high school is a social justice issue of pressing concern. If only we could simultaneously reduce support for their schools, parents and guardians, maybe, just maybe, we can finally beat back this scourge of 16-year olds prioritizing immediate household needs for additional income over pursuing the abstract long-term benefits of a high school diploma. Don’t these kids know how important Total Factor Productivity is to the future of our economy? Don’t they CARE?

    Thanks,
    ISOK

  20. phil says:

    I don’t think one should underestimate the pressures to earn money for your family extreme poverty can have. So I’m sure that providing less economic support for high poverty households, will make them understand that they should increase economic stress in the short term for the long term benefits of a HS degree. I mean they do know they’re rational decision makers right? Or is it only the wealthy economists that know that?

  21. Murray Abraham says:

    James Joyner: “In this day and age, it’s simply irresponsible not to finish high school — or at least get a GED. Hell, you’re required by law to go to school through age 16. How hard is it to hang around another year and get that diploma?”

    To which I reply: we all know how “mature” we are at 16. Most of us hung around to get that diploma because … our parents said so. Conversely most HS dropouts grow up in families without these incentives or worse where there is a “get yourself a job and pay me a rent” pressure.

    Mr Joyner obviously never heard of this. Did I just say elitist?

  22. Diana says:

    Maybe it’s not that hard to stay in school. Maybe it is … if, say, you’re being relentless bullied in your school, or you’re working 40 hours a week at a minimum wage job.

    But anyone can register to vote and then turn up and vote on the day of the election.

    People who can’t be bothered to do either …. well, yes, maybe we shouldn’t be bending over backwards to lavish resources on such people.

  23. k martinez says:

    Murray and Phil: Do you guys actually live around any of these logical HS dropouts you speak of? Okay, I know you don’t. Where I live they aren’t actually dropping out so much to meet their familial needs as to do drugs, commit petty and not petty crime, or sit on their asses watching TV or playing video games. The teachers will tell you they try to tell the parents of these young morons that the kids need to do well in school only to have the parents reply “I don’t have education and I’m fine.” The previous generation was still able, as were my parents, to get living wage jobs without any education. It won’t be true for the future and these young morons are going to suffer. It will also be their fault and that of their parents. And don’t go all snivelly on me. I came from a working class family, and I cracked a damned book.

  24. Rebopine says:

    “An alternative view of the charts is that the unemployed are mostly people who’ve done an incredibly poor job of managing their own lives.”

    You’re missing a very important point here: Sh%& Happens! It’s not always a matter of “mismanagement”.

    For instance, if you’re dad dies suddenly during your Sophomore year of High School and you have to grow-up overnight and get 2 jobs to help support your mother and 4 siblings (happened to me) a high school diploma is suddenly out of reach. Later, I was able to catch up and am now a successful 35 y/o with a college degree, but sometimes plans are delayed or changed due to unforeseen circumstances.

    Seems like your life has been so charmed that you are blind to the challenges other face daily, it would do you well to consider this BEFORE deciding that people are willfully mismanaging their lives.

  25. Rebopine says:

    “An alternative view of the charts is that the unemployed are mostly people who’ve done an incredibly poor job of managing their own lives.”

    Second Point: Many people have been laid-off through no fault of their own and had their careers derailed due to the recession. How have these people mismanaged their lives exactly? What have they done wrong that you (in your infinite wisdom!) would have done differently to avoid the axe while thousands of their colleagues fall?

  26. tanstaafl says:

    Mr. Joyner,
    Please visit an urban high school, as I have made it a habit to do. Talk to the kids. Most of them do not care about learning. They treat school as a game in which the object is to make as little effort as is possible. This is a sad state of affairs, but I think it is absolutely wrong to blame these kids for this terrible attitude toward learning and their terrible study habits. People are not Vulcans who respond to logic; you can tell these kids the logic of studying and graduating until your are blue in the face and it will not change their attitudes. It’s like telling a smoker the logic of quitting–they will continue to puff away. At some point prior to high school, these students’ habits and attitudes toward learning were formed. We must discover how they were formed and how to alter this formation. This is a huge problem which encompasses the parents, teachers, and social environment in which young people grow up, and it is a problem that must be confronted with actions, not shrugs.

  27. Cheryl K says:

    I’m not buying the “they had to leave high school, so don’t blame them for their ills” The person who was forced out of high school is the one most liklely pushing his own kids to stay in school. But many of you keep skipping the second half of the equation about these people not voting. I’d say these folks don’t really give a rats a$$ about their future or their government, so why should the rest of us bend over backwards to help take care of them?

    This certainly explains what’s going on in my state of Arizona, because, frankly, the Republican-controlled government clearly does not act in the interest of those who most need government services, especially in terms of education and healthcare. It makes sense that the people who are getting screwed the most by our state, don’t vote in the first place.

  28. Emily says:

    This graph does not in any way show that “most” of the people who are unemployed did not graduate from high school. Just from glancing at it we can see that there are about twice as many people in the population in the high school graduate category as the high school non-graduate category, and the unemployment rate for the first group is more than half that of the second group. Therefore, there are more unemployed people who graduated from high school than who didn’t. And that doesn’t even count the people who graduated from college who are unemployed. So if don’t have sympathy for high school drop-outs, you need to find some other reason to not have sympathy for the more than half of unemployed people who graduated.