Unemployment crisis - The greatest challenge of our time

THE highest unemployment figures in two decades were reported yesterday. The Central Statistics Office reported that the number of people who depend on unemployment benefits rose by 5,800 in June – more or less 300 jobs lost every working day for a month.

This rate of attrition is unsustainable. It would challenge the most stable and affluent societies, much less one that is increasingly divided and teetering on the verge of bankruptcy.

The latest increase brings the seasonally adjusted number of people signing on the Live Register to 444,900. The standardised unemployment rate in June was 13.4%. It was 12.9% in the first quarter of 2010.

In April, the EU average was 9.7%. There are about 23.3 million unemployed people in the 27 member states, of whom 15.86 million were in the 16-country euro area. The number of people out of work grew by 2.4 million over the 12 months ending in April, 2010, of which 1.28 million were in the euro area.

In May, 135,789 American workers lost their jobs bringing the US unemployment rate to 9.7%, down from 9.9% in April and up from 9.4% a year earlier.

The difficulty of our situation is underlined by the fact that our unemployment rate is nearly 50% higher than the EU average. We all know that these figures would be much higher if so many Irish people, many of them young, very well-educated and ambitious, had not followed yesterday’s lost generations and emigrated to try to build a new life. The figures would be higher again if so many unemployed people were not occupied on courses of questionable merit or engaged in community work projects.

Even the coldness of those figures cannot mask the great human tragedy behind them. They tell of people running just to stand still, of families whose expectations are focussed on the day-to-day struggle to survive rather than on realising their potential. They tell of people whose daily drudge must be a nightmare as they worry about how long more that bank will allow them stay in the family home as they can no longer meet mortgage obligations agreed when they had jobs. They tell of parents who must say “no” to their children far more often than anyone would want.

There is the terrible Catch-22 implication – though fewer and fewer people are paying income tax, more and more depend on the struggling State. Unemployment is the greatest crisis facing us. Unless it is resolved it will undo more or less everything else we can do or rescue from the wreckage of our economy.

As the Dáil charges towards its summer escape we have seen great passions aroused because a party that, in the most recent Sunday Business Post poll recorded 2% support, backs a party on just 24%.

The two-in-a-hundred party has used its leverage to push pet projects in a most undemocratic and divisive way. Times of great crisis demand great leaders and whether a Taoiseach, who cannot manage a tiny minority made relevant only by his own weak position, is that man is a question that may have to be answered sooner than Mr Cowen’s supporters might wish.

This crisis has the capacity to touch us all and everyone of us must play a full part in confronting it. Every purchase we make, every holiday decision, every business and work decision must be informed by the fact that 444,900 Irish people need jobs.


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