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“99 Weeks Later, Jobless Have Only Desperation,” the headline said. It was August 2010, and the unemployment rate in the United States had climbed to 9.5%. Around the country, millions of people were out of work, and many had lost their unemployment insurance benefits, which ordinarily last 26 weeks but, thanks to Congressional action, were extended to 60 or 99 weeks based on a state’s unemployment rate. An estimated 1.4 million had now exceeded the 99-week limit. For the many people in this group who had been getting benefits, dubbed the “99ers,” according to a news report, their “modest payments were a lifeline that enabled them to maintain at least a veneer of normalcy, keeping a roof over their heads, putting gas in their cars, paying electric and phone bills.” One 99er was a 49-year-old woman who used to work as director of client services for a small technology company but now expected to be living in her car after being unable to find a job, despite many applications, being unable to pay her rent, and facing eviction. As she drove away from her apartment for good, she sobbed and later recalled, “At one point, I thought, you know, what if I turned the wheel in my car and wrecked my car?” Ironically, she had also fallen behind on her loan payments on her car, which was about to be repossessed. (Luo, 2010)Luo, M. (2010, August 3). 99 weeks later, jobless have only desperation. The New York Times, p. A1.
One of the most momentous events of the 20th century was the Great Depression, which engulfed the United States in 1929 and spread to the rest of the world, lasting almost a decade. Millions were thrown out of work, and bread lines became common. In the United States, a socialist movement gained momentum for a time as many workers blamed U.S. industry and capitalism for their unemployment.
The Depression involved the failing of the economy. The economy also failed in the United States beginning in late 2007, when the country entered what is being called the Great Recession. The news article that began this chapter provides just a small illustration of the millions of lives that have been affected.
This chapter presents a sociological perspective on the economy as a social institution. It reviews the history of the economy, the major types of economic systems, and the nature of work in the United States today. It also examines one of the most important if controversial aspects of the U.S. economy, the defense industry. Along the way, we will explore several sociological themes, including the importance of the economy as a key social institution for so many aspects of lives, the ways in which it reflects and reinforces the social inequalities discussed in previous chapters, and the need for change to address these inequalities.