Beyond the economic numbers

One of the ways that we manage our lives is with statistics. We are appropriately skeptical about how statistics are molded and carved to make any point a politician wants to make. As the old joke goes, statistics are often like a lamp pole to a drunk: used more for support than illumination.

At the same time, statistics are our modern-day scorecards. News stories routinely cite them to show our progress: Disease, divorce, teen pregnancy. Each one of those social phenomena represents hugely disruptive and upsetting events for individuals and families. But, as statistics, they are simply metrics of social health or decline. We cluck over their trajectories, but they are just numbers.

Take unemployment and underemployment. The numbers show we are doing better than we were in 2008 and 2009. Some celebrate it. Others say we should do better. Some say there are jobs out there for any able-bodied person and object to continued aid for the unemployed. Others use unemployment to curse those believed to be “taking our jobs.”

But when unemployment has a face, it is a very different story. A middle-aged woman, her common-law marriage collapsed, struggles to find someone who will hire her after years of not working. A young man with great gifts is ready to put them to good use, but no doors are opening for him. An older man who was successful for more than three decades has all but given up the search for something else since being laid off at the recession’s dawn.

These are people I know, and when the details come into focus, the pain can be searing: An underemployed woman struggles with diabetes, but can’t find a job with health insurance. A job is available, but the cost of commuting and the cost of day care consumes huge portions of small checks. A person’s skill sets no longer command attention from employers, and the skills needed now were never learned because resources were not there to learn them. Marriages and children are put off because stable employment — one of the most pro-family requisites there is — remains a will-o’-the-wisp.

When it comes to jobs, it is a buyer’s market, and it has been for some time. Statistics tell us that this won’t last forever. Demographic bulges and busts, the impending retirement of the baby boom horde, the economic cycles that economists unemotionally track and report on: All of these tell us that in time, over years, whether a Republican or a Democrat is in the White House, jobs will return.

For the human beings, the real people caught in the current reality, however, such statistics provide little comfort.

When I read the thundering pronouncements about market forces, about government job programs, about the 47 percent, about health care costs, I try to think of the faces: The 60-year-old who keeps looking for leads, but whose face suggests the toll that all the rejection has taken. The exhausted 30-year-old who is working two jobs to support his small family.

Scripture talks a lot about the poor, and unemployment can be both a material and a spiritual poverty. Pope Francis knows the toll it takes, and not just because of his work with the poor in the ghettos of Buenos Aires. For Pope Francis it’s family. He recalls the difficult times his own father had as an immigrant in Argentina in the 1930s.

“They lost everything. There was no work,” he said. “I was not born yet, but I heard them speak about this suffering at home. I know this well. But I must tell you: courage.”

Courage is necessary for those who keep seeking. Perhaps courage is also needed by the rest of us — employers, neighbors, family members — the courage to help those who can’t do it all by themselves.

Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.