- - Friday, July 20, 2012

The simple pleasures of summer have been overshadowed this year by crushing institutional despair as too many Americans are sentenced to life without meaningful employment.

The monthly job reports have taken on the tone of a parole board hearing in which the dismal fates of millions are laid out in bleak numbers. The stagnant unemployment number of 8.2 percent ignores those sentenced so long to joblessness that they have become unemployment lifers. Also ignored is the fact that not enough jobs are being created to accommodate new workers, those fresh-faced graduates ready to take their place in the world. With the Federal Reserve predicting no real change until 2014, if then, the data bear a closer look.

The Hill newspaper reports that until recently, the highest percentage of long-term unemployed workers was 26 percent in the 1980s. Compare that to a peak of 46 percent during the most recent downturn, and currently about 43 percent, according to the latest Labor Department figures.

Further breaking down the numbers, of 12.7 million unemployed, 5.4 million have been out of work for at least six months. Of those, about 33 percent have suffered without work for a year or longer. That stands in stark contrast to data from before the beginning of the recession, in December 2007, when just 17.5 percent of the unemployed were out of work for six months or longer.

Bearing the brunt of this is the next generation. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development warned recently that 14.8 percent of young people ages 15 to 24 in the United States are neither employed nor in school or training programs.

Ironically, the story of struggling young people can be told easily by considering America’s returning veterans. “While the national unemployment rate is 8.2 percent, it is nearly 13 percent for returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan,” the Daily Caller reported.

Hope and change do not seem to be on the horizon, given current economic policies. Most economists are predicting that the job market will continue on this track for an unhealthy seven years following the end of the Great Recession, which, we are told, ended in June 2009. That seems a claim worthy of dispute. It will be the longest stretch of high unemployment since the end of World War II.

Inexplicably, the Obama administration asserts that Americans “should not read too much into” the terrible numbers. Such thin gruel of comfort has been offered to unemployed Americans more than 30 times during 41 straight months of unemployment over 8 percent — and counting. It seems very callous for those protected by the security of federal jobs and pensions to discount the very real concerns of millions left with nothing.

A new approach is needed — one that ends the pretense that the federal government can spend its way to achieving full employment without bankrupting the few remaining wage earners available, one that makes government a partner with job creators rather than treating them as a suspect class.

For nations and families, bringing an end to the current cycle begins with the same few steps:

A strict budget for families and Uncle Sam. The fact that President Obama and his allies in the Senate failed to produce a budget for three years is dereliction of duty. We need leaders on both sides of the political aisle who can restore a sense of trust in the federal government’s ability to manage a budget. Families also must sit down with a red pen and a spending plan to ensure that if an unemployment event happens to them, it does not become a financial disaster. Tools to build a budget are available at websites such as Crown.org. Preparing for unemployment and other disasters requires savings, modest spending and living with a plan.

A rethinking of vision. Unrealistic expectations and poorly conceived plans gut family and federal finances. In 2010, the U.S. government took in about $2.2 trillion in total revenue, about 40 percent of which came from income tax. But the government spent about $3.5 trillion, borrowing $1.3 trillion. The problem is not cash flow — it’s spending. It is time for Uncle Sam to set a good example for American families and go to zero-based budgeting, in which no items are untouchable. Every program and every purchase must be fully justified.

A new source of help. To really help the unemployed, we don’t need more government intervention. It is time to engage the community, in particular the local church and nonprofits. For too long, the faith-based community has been pushed to the sidelines despite its unique access to helping hands. Ministries like Crown are equipped with tools to help people avoid unemployment or quickly get back on their feet. There are many outstanding organizations that want to serve their communities with food, clothing, career training, networking and personal care.

The assumption that the federal government is best suited to make a difference ignores the abject failure of too many of its efforts related to employment. More of the culture must be engaged to address long-term joblessness. The faith community, dedicated to helping its fellow man, needs to be part of the answer.

It will take all of us to end this unemployed-for-life sentence impacting too many. There is no “get out of jail free” card.

Chuck Bentley is CEO of Crown, a nonprofit business and personal finance policy and educational organization, and author of “The S.A.L.T. Plan: How to Prepare for an Economic Crisis of Biblical Proportions” (Crown Financial Ministries, 2012).