Over the course of the pandemic, I’ve spent quite a bit of time lamenting the loss of employment in the food services industry and documenting the existential crisis facing restaurants across America.
As longtime readers know, my affinity for dining out and imbibing runs deep. Wherever I’ve lived, I’ve generally become a fixture at a hodgepodge of local restaurants and drinking establishments, running the gamut from the priciest steak and sushi to the seediest of dive bars. In fact, one thing that bothered me about Manhattan was the difficulty of becoming a “fixture” at any one place due to the sheer number of venues and “competition” for “regular” status.
In any case, five years ago I was compelled (by medical professionals) to cease and desist from alcohol consumption, so my lifelong link to the restaurant industry was effectively severed. Parting, as they say, was such sweet sorrow. And yet, despite my detachment, my heart still breaks for those represented by the chart (below).
For decades, they were my psychiatrists and, as it turned out, the only real friends I had. Around two million of them are still jobless and frankly, the figures (from the BLS) almost surely understate the scope of the malaise.
On Saturday, in “Nero 2024,” I mentioned that direct aid for the restaurant industry is apparently not forthcoming outside of any renewed assistance delivered as part of the Paycheck Protection Program.
What the new stimulus bill does provide, though, is $15 billion for cultural institutions. As The New York Times wrote this week, “many small proprietors described it as their last hope for being able to remain in business after a nearly yearlong revenue drought.”
As much sympathy as the restaurant industry deserves, unemployment in the arts is astoundingly high. In a separate piece, published Saturday, the Times’s documented what one union leader warned could morph into
Trying to sort through the readily available data to quantify the situation is nearly impossible given the multifarious, heterogeneous nature of the arts community. It’s highly likely that many artists are undercounted, miscategorized, or simply not captured in any official government data. The Times underscores as much, noting overlap with the hospitality industry. “Many artists work other jobs to cobble together a living, often in the restaurant [and] retail industries, where work has also dried up,”
I don’t pretend to know, for example, how representative the “Arts, Entertainment, and Recreation” series is. More granular series (e.g., “Performing Arts and Spectator Sports”) paint dour pictures, but because I’m not entirely sure what I’m looking at when I chart them, I simply defaulted to the visual (below), as it’s at least widely cited, even if it doesn’t capture what I’m trying to show with any degree of precision.
The Times quoted Adam Krauthamer, president of Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians in New York, the largest local union of professional musicians in the world.
“My fear is we’re not just losing jobs, we’re losing careers,” Krauthamer told
According to data from the National Endowment for the Arts, unemployment rates for actors, dancers, and musicians are multiples of the rates for food service workers.
Obviously, a $15 billion federal lifeline for venues helps, but it’s no panacea. Enhanced unemployment benefits and program extensions will lapse in March absent another stimulus push. And that assumes Donald Trump signs the existing legislation. If he doesn’t, the billions in emergency funding aimed at rescuing cultural institutions from financial oblivion will get held up along with everything else.
The language I’ve employed in penning this post suggests I mentioned the arts as a kind of addendum to the broader economic suffering brought on by the pandemic. That cadence, to the extent it’s as discernible to readers as it was to me when I proofread the product of my own pen, was inadvertent. And that speaks to how easily entire sectors of the economy can be forgotten. If even I end up accidentally adopting an apathetic tone, just imagine how disinterested most Americans are at the plight of the proverbial “starving artist.”
To be sure, this is no small matter. The Times reminded the country that artists “are an integral part of local economies and communities in every corner of rural, suburban and urban America.”
They (artists of all kinds) also tend to enrich the lives of those around them and otherwise promote a sense of civic responsibility and social cohesion. The country desperately needs that right now. America can scarcely afford to get any stupider or any more divided.