In this April 9, 2009 file photo, thousands of unemployed people wait in lines for buses to a job fair at the Mall of New Hampshire parking lot in Manchester, N.H.
On this Labor Day of 2012, there could be no better tribute to America's workforce than to add to its membership.
With an unemployment rate that remains stubbornly high, it becomes awkward to conspicuously pay tribute to those who go to work every day when there are so many who don't, but wish they could.
The holiday also informally marks the start of the serious part of the election season, and is therefore a propitious time for those running for office to pay specific attention to the millions of Americans who remain outside the sphere of regular employment.
Certainly, job growth and economic recovery are on center stage in the presidential debate, as they should be. But it is time now to hear in precise detail what prescriptions the parties and their candidates will write to put more people to work.
It is a discussion that cannot be reduced to simple platitudes. Partisanship aside, economists are not in harmony on what might be the best medicine. Would dramatic action to reduce the federal deficit spur the kind of confidence that will persuade business to increase hiring? If so, where exactly do we cut? Is there an answer in some form of government stimulus? What of the Federal Reserve's monetary policy, an overhaul of our taxing scheme, paring back regulatory functions, or any combination of the above?
Something economists do agree on is that chronic unemployment is not a beast that can be slain with a single bullet. In fact, leading thinkers in the field believe we are at a macro-economic crossroads, where an evolving global market is eliminating entire sectors of employment through automation and outsourcing.
For people who have lost jobs in those vulnerable sectors – particularly those middle-aged and with lesser levels of education – equivalent employment may not lie on the immediate horizon. If and when job growth resumes at a notable pace, they may still be left on the sidelines.
The disposition of that segment of the unemployed is something we need to hear our politicians talk about in greater detail, whether it be in the form of a discussion about safety nets or methods to retrain and re-qualify.
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To those frustrated by their inability to find appropriate work, it is supremely unfair to suggest from a political podium that their fortunes may be reversed in the time it takes to cast a ballot. The honest message is that a return to general prosperity may in truth be a long, hard slog.
The November election has been framed as a referendum on opposing approaches to economic recovery. We look forward to an honest exchange on the details of each party's prospectus.
So do the more than 5 million Americans who have been without work for at least six months, and for whom Labor Day has become, sadly, just another day off.