Last Monday, Gov. Tom Corbett committed a Kinsley gaffe.
An explanation: Coined by pundit Michael Kinsley – he was once the “left” to Pat Buchanan’s “right” on CNN’s “Crossfire” – a Kinsley gaffe is when a politician blurts out a fairly straightforward truth and sparks off a powder keg of controversy.
Corbett’s gaffe came in an interview with the website PAMatters.com. When asked about his job-creation record and the state’s 7.9 percent unemployment rate – currently 0.3 percent above the national figure – Corbett noted that some of the long-term unemployed are re-entering the jobs scramble, thus increasing the number, and that some are deficient in the skills that are needed in today’s labor market.
He also pointed out that some job-seekers walk away from the application process, even if they’re on the cusp of being hired, when they find out that they will have to go through a drug test before they start punching the clock.
“There are many employers that say, ‘We’re looking for people, but we can’t find anybody that has passed a drug test in a lot of them,’” Corbett said. “And that’s a concern for me because we’re having a serious problem with that.”
Within hours, maybe even minutes, Corbett’s opponents exploded in a state of high dudgeon. State Treasurer Rob McCord, who will probably be vying for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 2014, said that Corbett doesn’t understand the economy and how it works. John Hanger, another Democrat with his eyes on Corbett’s job, declared that Corbett “insults Pennsylvanians looking for a job, full-time work or simply a better job by saying they can’t pass drug tests.”
State Rep. Jesse White of Cecil Township also got in on the act, posting on Facebook that what Corbett said was “really offensive” and “I am approached constantly by constituents looking for work, many of whom I know do not use drugs.”
Granted, there are those who have their share of delusions about the unemployed. They think the relatively high rate of unemployment plaguing America for the last five years or so is because the jobless have been lulled into terminal laziness by the government benefits they collect. It’s not much of a stretch from there to believe that they’re layabouts snarfing down drugs when they should be hitting the pavement. This is a particularly pernicious and ugly strain of victim-blaming.
The reality is that 8.8 million jobs were decimated by the Great Recession in the United States. Only about 5.9 million of those jobs have returned, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. In the meantime, graduates continue to pour off the campuses of colleges and universities with freshly printed résumés in hand. Until robust economic growth returns, many talented and able workers will continue to be sidelined.
But let’s give Corbett the benefit of the doubt. He almost certainly comprehends this grim landscape. And he was correct in observing that some potential employees head for the exits when drug-testing is mentioned. In 2011, Byron Kohut, the director of Westmoreland County Community College’s ShaleNET Western Hub, told the Observer-Reporter that if 150 people attended an informational session on being a roustabout in the oil and gas industry, half would walk out when they learned they would have to pass both drug and criminal background checks. And then, half of those left would go on to take a drug test and fail. Other local employers have reported similar results.
Both Corbett and his opponents would be doing the commonwealth a service if they started tackling the actual causes of both unemployment and drug abuse, rather than trading fire over manufactured outrages.