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As Poverty Rate Jumps, Jobs With Justice, PDA Highlight Jobs Emergency in 100 Cities

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The Census Bureau reported yesterday that over 43 million Americans are living in poverty —the most recorded in 50 years and the highest rate since 1994. So that added urgency to the efforts of  progressive activists, led by Jobs With Justice (JWJ) and Progressive Democrats of America, in organizing mostly small-scale protests in 100 cities Wednesday to prod political leaders to do more to respond to the jobs crisis. 

"When Wall Street was in crisis, Congress found hundreds of billions of dollars to bail them out. We need to respond to the jobs crisis with the same urgency," says  Sarita Gupta, the director  of Jobs With Justice, a group of local labor, faith and activist coalitions involving 1500 organizations in 47 localities (hat tip to Center for Media and Democracy). 

There's at least one important jobs bill that realistically could get still get passed in this Congress: the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families emergency fund  through which 37 states have provided subsidized jobs for nearly 250,000 otherwise unemployed parents and youth. The bill has passed the House, but it has been, predictably, held up in the Senate despite support from small-businesses, and even state and local Republican officials. "We hope we can make a difference about what some local politicians do about the TANF funds that are about to run out [on Sept. 30th]," observes JWJ communications coordinator Allison Fletcher Acosta.

In Chicago, roughly 300 unemployed people and labor activists rallied outside the GOP headquarters to protest the jobs voting record of the GOP's Senate candidate, Rep. Mark Kirk, in one of the country's tightest  races. Led by the Chicago Jobs with Justice's Unemployed Workers Council, the activists united to demand immediate action to create jobs.  "We need jobs and until we get them of course we need unemployment benefits.  Mark Kirk is voting against both", said Carole Ramsden, an unemployed union electrician and member of the Chicago JwJ Unemployed Workers Council.

As a JWJ press release noted, on August 10th, Kirk promised to vote to support legislation that would have prevented layoffs of teachers for local school districts facing budget shortfalls due to the ongoing economic crisis.  One day later, in Washington, Kirk reversed himself and voted against the legislation—but Congress passed the bill without his support.

The press statement declared:

"Our kids need teachers, and our economy can't withstand more job losses.  This bill saved 6,000 jobs in Illinois.  Why on earth is Kirk voting against that? Because it adds to the deficit?  Well, then why does he support extending the Bush tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires?" asked John Kugler of the Chicago Teachers Union.

 

Kirk has also voted repeatedly against extending unemployment benefits since November 2009, again attributing his opposition to an unwillingness to add to the budget deficit despite the general consensus among economists that in aneconomic downturn short-term deficit spending is preferable to further shrinking the economy by ending benefits to the unemployed.  Furthermore, Kirk has said he favors extending the Bush Administration's tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires which would add over $100 billion to the national debt.

Other highlights:

  • In Medford, Oregon, dozens of activists attended a rally where a symbolic soup line was set up outside a local unemployment office to emphasize the jobs crisis -- and garnered some brief local coverage
  • In Orlando , FL , people staged a “die in” on the ground in front of Senator George LeMieux’s office to portray the dying state of the U.S. economy. Tombstones with the crippling statistics of jobs lost symbolized the severity and urgency of the jobs crisis.  Takea Pierce, an unemployed mother of three told her story of the difficulty in finding employment, and explained how the tombstones symbolize the dying American dream. After a press conference, community leaders sent a delegation to Senator LeMieux urging him to stop blocking legislation that could jumpstart an economic recovery.

But there's a striking contrast between the ambition of the Jobs With Justice goals, echoed by a call Thursday by 300 progressive economists for job-creating spending over deficit cutting, and the grim political reality in Washington in which "stimulus" has become a dirty word thanks to conservative Swift-Boating that Democrats responded to too late.

In fact, the unemployment extension that was part of the original stimulus and subsequent bills -- opposed by most Republicans -- kept over three million more people from descending into poverty. As the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities' executive director, Robert Greenstein points out:

Poverty would have risen much higher without the temporary expansions in unemployment insurance benefits provided by the Recovery Act and other legislation. In 2008, unemployment benefits kept 900,000 Americans out of poverty. In 2009, by contrast, unemployment benefits kept 3.3 million Americans out of poverty, an analysis of today’s data shows. The majority of the increase in UI benefits in 2009 came from the Recovery Act.

Yet with most Republicans opposing even extending tax credits and setting up a loan fund to small business to promote hiring (that $30 billion bill passed the Senate Thursday), the sort of large-scale jobs programs favored by labor and groups like Jobs With Justice seem even further away from passage in today's Washington. Here are the highlights of their agenda for the September 15th protests:

Today we are sending a message to Congress: If you won’t act to create jobs, maybe you don’t deserve to have job.

OUR DEMANDS:

Full and Fair Employment. Congress must recognize the jobs emergency.

Extend the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families emergency fund jobs subsidies program.

Pass legislation like the Local Jobs for America Act, extend unemployment insurance, heed President Obama’s call to renew the countries’ infrastructure and create a national infrastructure bank, and other bills that will create jobs, protect public services, and help get our economy going again.

Wall Street must pay their fair share for the crisis they created. A tax on financial speculation could raise $200-$500 billion every year.

TAKE ACTION NOW!

It may all seem quite unrealistic in a political environment in which "stimulus" has become politically toxic and Democrats steer away from the term—and the president's new $50 billion infrastructure plan is considered DOA.

But as JWJ spokesperson Acosta observes, "It's been almost impossible to get anything through this Senate, but if you're not beginning from a place of asking for bold policies, you're not going to get bold policies."

This article originally appeared in the Working In These Times blog.