By Matthew Cameron
In response to Catherine Rampell’s article in the Sunday New York Times about the stunning lack of political attention devoted to the modern unemployed, David Leonhardt posited that a reason for this phenomenon may be the concentrated nature of the jobs crisis. Specifically, he noted:
In 1982, the unemployment rate averaged between 9 and 10 percent — and fully 22 percent of the labor force experienced unemployment at some point during the year. In 2009 (the most recent year of data), the unemployment rate also averaged between 9 and 10 percent, but only (or maybe “only”) 16.4 percent of the labor force experienced unemployment at some point during the year.
Just as surprising, the share of the labor force that experienced unemployment in 2009 was lower than in the early 1960s, when the unemployment rate was generally below 7 percent.
As it turns out, the unemployed aren’t merely a narrower slice of the American electorate than in previous downturns. They also are concentrated in highly populous states that are severely underrepresented in the Senate.
In 2010, there were 17 states with working age populations that exceeded the per-state average. Among these states, which accounted for 70 percent of the U.S. working age population, the average unemployment rate was 9.9 percent. The other 33 states with below average working age populations, however, had an average unemployment rate of 8.2 percent.
The situation is even starker when looking at the extremes. The average unemployment rate among the 10 most populous states was a whopping 10.3 percent in 2010. Among the 10 least populous states, however, average unemployment was only 7 percent. Despite the fact that the former group comprises 54 percent of the U.S. working age population and the latter group only 3 percent, the nation’s system of political representation grants each an equal-sized voting bloc in the Senate. Thus, the unemployed possess even less clout than one would expect since they tend to reside in states that afford them very little political power per capita.
Overall, this bolsters Rampell’s thesis that there are a variety of historical and institutional factors conspiring to make the modern unemployed invisible. Yet it also casts doubt upon her suggestion that the unemployed could attract the attention of politicians by simply turning out to vote. After all, no matter how much mobilizing took place among the 2.3 million people who made up the 12.4 percent of California’s workforce that was unemployed at the time of the 2010 elections, they still would’ve only had the opportunity to vote for as many senators — one — as did the 96.1 percent of North Dakota’s labor force (roughly 356,000 people) that was happily employed.