From The Nation, Laura Flanders has a piece on what happened to all those long-term unemployed people who have given up – with a flattering quote from yours truly (the quote is further along, to give you an incentive to read the whole thing ).
Look around, it’s much more likely that the officially “unemployed” are busy, doing their best to make ends meet in whatever ways they can. Sex work, drugs and crime spring to mind, but the underground or “shadow” economy includes all sorts of off-the-books toil. From baby-sitting, bartering, mending, kitchen-garden farming and selling goods in a yard sale, all sorts of people—from the tamale seller on your corner, to the dancer who teachers yoga—are all contributing to the underground economy along with the “employed” who pay them for their wares.
The “underground” is always with us. For better and often for worse, it’s how marginalized populations tend to survive—often not very well. (Think of the old, the young, the formerly incarcerated or foreign.) In recessions—surprise, surprise—“irregular” employment grows. Consider recent stories from Greece about wageless public “workers” swapping skills and trading food for teaching.
The story includes the fascinating observation that we’re seeing as much off-books, informal economy activity as during WWII under rationing. While this is bad for the IRS, and often tough for the folks living in the informal economy, one of my main premises is that because the informal economy is both larger and more robust (ie, much more likely to survive in a crisis situation), it is foolish for Americans to put all their eggs in the formal economy basket. We need to strengthen and diversify the informal economy in the US (the US has one of the largest informal economies in the world, but one of the smallest as a portion of total economic activity).
Last year I got a ride back from a talk I gave with a lovely, kind young woman who told me about her and her husband’s collection of economic activities. A combination of temping, dog-walking and making internet sex videos, as well as robust barter, home sharing and sustainability activities made them fairly comfortable in 20-something terms. They worried mostly about health care – she wanted to have a child, and was hoping that she’d be able to home birth because of the untenable cost of a hospital or birthing center birth. I hear stories like hers over and over again, particularly among the recent college graduates who have never had full access to the formal economy, and don’t seem likely to get it any time soon.
It isn’t just recent graduates, though, by any means. Out here in the boonies, living in the informal economy has always been the norm – barter, under the table cash for farm-products, handyman work for cash (presumably unreported – I don’t know that, but I’d lay odds), this is how a considerable number of my neighbors make their living. Indeed, there have been years where barter for firewood or car usage has made it possible for us to get along.
A couple of years ago, at a conference I attended, a minister working in low income neighborhoods in urban New Haven laughed at me when I talked about “the informal economy.” He said “Down here, we just call it “the hustle” and everyone has to have a hustle to survive. We try and get them out of selling drugs, but whether they are watching their sister’s kids or driving a cab at night off books, everyone has to have a hustle.”
This is the reality of poverty, and it is coming to a neighborhood near you – I actually like “the hustle’ way better than “cottage industry” or “work in the informal economy” – its got a good rhythm and you can dance to it – and you may have to, sooner rather than later. Given that, the key to an informal economy that support the influx of workers from the next major global economic crisis and the one after that is to strengthen it – and get your own hustle.