During the past year 1.9 million Americans lost their jobs, with almost a third of those losing them last month. When the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) released these numbers this week, one of the Bureau’s commissioners said the report was probably the most negative report in BLS’s 124 year history.
Meanwhile this year over 2 million houses went into foreclosure. Many of those losing their homes did not lose their jobs; they were at least somewhat fortunate. But the firings and foreclosure together affected over 3 million workers.
In the past year while the stock markets fell by nearly 50%, my retirement savings dropped 25%. I would imagine that most sociologists felt equivalent personal financial losses this year. Even those putting their savings in “fixed income” retirement funds have lost money because of the collapse of the bond markets.
Despite the huge magnitude of this economic trauma, sociologists appear to be silent about the financial crisis. The American Sociological Association’s newsletter, Footnotes, has not mentioned the crisis nor is it a special topic of the forthcoming annual convention. It is even scarcely mentioned in Contexts magazine’s blogs. Isn’t there a big enough hurt yet to talk about?
This month, after economists have begun comparing our current financial crisis to the great depression, the government finally admitted that the United States economy was in a recession. Ironically, they also added that we had been in a state of economic recession for 12 months.
Sociologists, like the American government, have not told the public anything about the financial crisis. Wait, isn’t that criticism a bit unfair? After all, it takes at least a year or two, if not three, to conduct a thorough study. But have we not learned what social effects resulted from previous economic recessions and depressions? Maybe. It is difficult to find discussions in the sociological literature on this topic.
About the only one discussing the sociological effects of the current recession is David Brooks, a journalist who writes Op-Ed Columns for the New York Times. Last month in “The Formerly Middle Class”, he wrote that those on the low rungs of the middle class are those for whom the recession is the most catastrophic. “Recessions breed pessimism,” he wrote, and he claimed that millions of Americans, to say nothing of the billions in the developing world, are “facing the psychological and social pressures of downward mobility.”
Career reversals and job loss yields serious self-doubt, he argued. For the formerly middle-class, housing reversals mean returning from suburban dream homes to run-down apartments, to paraphrase David Brooks’ message.
Brooks’ most interesting theories have to do with social capital and social identity. Quoting Robert Putnam, he argues that economic depression yields social isolation because people have to stay home more and their community bonds break up. In fact, the history of our great depression shows that suicide rates and divorce rates went up while birth rates went down.
These predictable trends yield alienation and social protest, and therefore Brooks predicts that the next big social movements will start from the formerly middle class.
Much of this analysis is conjecture, but isn’t it more relevant than any other sociological topic these days? Economic forecasters share the hunch that the economy will continue to worsen for at least a year. It is very likely that most of us in the middle class will have lost half of the value of our assets before the recession is over. Few will not face sacrifices, struggles and maybe even suffering during the years ahead. What can sociology say now, not next year, to help us understand better what is happening so that we can get through this with greater understanding, and compassion for ourselves as well as for others?