When CSUDH Emeritus Professor Frank Stricker’s new book on unemployment was published in June 2020, it coincided with the worst jobless crisis in many decades. “I planned it that way,” he deadpans.
Actually, Stricker spent almost a decade working on the book, titled “American Unemployment, Past, Present, and Future.” It was just a coincidence that the COVID-19 pandemic struck early in 2020 and caused massive job losses, but recent events have made Stricker’s book even more timely.
Stricker started teaching at CSUDH in 1972, and retired from the university in 2010. Although based in the History Department, he also taught courses in other disciplines. As he puts it, “I was a historian, but I also did work in labor studies, and much of my interdisciplinary work had to do with poverty and unemployment.”
His first book, “Why America Lost the War on Poverty–and How to Win It,” was published in 2007. It was during the writing of that book that Stricker became more focused on unemployment as an issue. “I became really interested in it as a topic on its own,” he says. “I decided I wanted to write a book about unemployment – detailing its history, but also offering analysis and potential solutions.”
Stricker found the topic of unemployment to have been a persistent, long-lasting problem. “We’ve almost always had too much unemployment,” he says, “Once I started studying it, I found that to be true for most of our history. It’s been a major problem since the 1870s, which is where my book starts. It’s been so harmful to so many people, so often.”
When asked why unemployment is such a timeless issue, Stricker does not hesitate to lay the blame at the feet of generations of American leadership. “I think there are too many people who don’t want to take the necessary steps to create full employment. Job creation doesn’t happen by itself. I think certain people don’t want to be taxed to create more jobs. Also, some employers prefer higher unemployment, because that means workers are more desperate and wages are lower. There’s a lot of conservatism in America.”
His research has led Stricker to the conclusion that the best, most effective way of fighting unemployment is through government job programs. He looks at the New Deal programs of the 1930s as models that could be followed, with large-scale projects providing jobs for millions.
“There’s so much we need to do in America with our social and our physical infrastructure,” says Stricker. “We’ve been talking about infrastructure programs for years, but we never get to a major push. We did a little bit under Obama, because part of his stimulus package had some money for infrastructure. There’s so much to do! But there’s just not the political will to push programs like that.”
One of his goals with the book is to dispel what Stricker calls “persistent myths” about unemployment.
To him, the most pernicious has been the idea that the unemployed don’t actually want to work. “There’s a long history of economists assuming that when people were unemployed, it was voluntary. There is this idea that if you really want a job, you can get one. We’ve learned that’s just not the case – most of us, anyway!”
Another myth that Stricker strikes down is the notion that giving tax breaks and incentives to the wealthy will result in job creation. “It just doesn’t usually turn out that way,” he says. “We can’t see much of a bump over what the norm would have been. Recently, a lot of companies used tax-cut money to buy their own stock and send the price up. We’re actually exacerbating income inequality by giving rich people more money. It usually doesn’t result in that many new jobs.”
One factor that Stricker finds important when discussing unemployment is the way in which it is measured in the U.S., which leads to another set of misperceptions. “Even at times when we think we’re pretty prosperous, the official unemployment rate doesn’t give us an accurate idea of how many people need jobs. It only measures people who have looked for work in the last four weeks. So if you’re pretty discouraged and stop actively searching for work, you cannot be counted as being unemployed.”
“In my view, and that of a lot of my colleagues, there are millions of people who just stop looking for work and try to get by on food stamps, disability payments, family members, and so on,” says Stricker. “They are truly unemployed but not counted as such. My organization, the National Jobs for All Coalition, estimates the real unemployment rate is usually about twice the official rate. We include people who want a job but haven’t looked recently, and part-timers who want full-time work but can’t find it. When we include those two groups, the unemployment rate is double the official one.”
Stricker wrote the book for a wide audience, not just policy wonks or economics majors. “I tried to make this book very reader-friendly. It’s intended for students and average citizens,” says Stricker. “If you care about big public issues, you shouldn’t be scared off by the book. There’s a lot of personality, and I tried to make it lively.”
When asked what he would like readers to take away from the book, Stricker says, “I don’t want the U.S. to just try to get back to where we were in 2019. We need real job programs and they need to pay decently. There are lots of sectors that need workers – child care, teaching, civil engineering, care workers for older people, and traditional infrastructure projects, of course.”
“Can progressives who support job programs succeed in the next few years?” Stricker asks. “Can Americans bring positive changes out of the plagues of racism, the COVID crisis, and economic inequality? Something like that happened in the 1930s, and that’s why we have Social Security, unemployment insurance, and a generally reliable unemployment count. We have a lot to do, and there’s a lot that we can do.”