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State of the Union Takeaway: Progress on Civil Rights

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Tonight in his State of the Union address, President Obama announced two important civil rights initiatives for workers struggling in this economy.

First, he will use his executive power to raise the minimum wage for government contract workers. Second, he will fight discrimination against the long-term unemployed, starting with a pledge from some of the biggest firms in the United States. These are strong moves that show that President Obama is willing to use his constitutional powers and his bully pulpit to take action on civil rights when extremists in Congress will not.

During his speech, President Obama promised to issue an executive order that will require federal contractors to pay their employees at least $10.10 an hour. This is big news for the nearly two million workers across the country that earn less than $12 an hour while working as employees for government contractors -- more than the number of low-wage workers at Walmart and McDonald's put together.

As it so often does, Washington, D.C. serves as a microcosm of this injustice. The federal government employs thousands of federal workers in the capital region through intermediary firms. These contractors work at Union Station, in the Defense Department and at other government buildings. They are the ones who serve food, clean toilets or wash dishes for politicians and their staff. Yet according to the National Employment Law Project, almost four in ten full-time federal contract workers in D.C. depend on public assistance programs to survive.

One of these workers is Jerome Hardy, who earns $9.00 an hour manning the grill at the Pentagon Café. He is a federal employee, but since he works through a private firm he does not receive the same benefits as a chef who works directly for the government. Hardy does not receive health insurance through his employer, and he has worked eight years without a raise.

President Obama's second big announcement dealt with the long-term unemployed -- those who have been out of a job for more than 26 weeks. The administration will lead a campaign to end discrimination against the unemployed, starting with an anti-discrimination pledge that has been signed by AT&T, Xerox, and other major companies.

As I wrote at the time of President Obama's second inaugural, unemployment discrimination is one of the biggest issues of our time. Even though employers are prohibited from discriminating based on race or gender, many states do not have laws against "employment discrimination 2.0" -- that is, discriminating against applicants who are unemployed, who have a low credit score or who have a criminal conviction on their record.

Unemployment discrimination is the ultimate catch-22: if you are out of a job, you are less likely to get another job, which makes it harder to get out of the unemployment cycle at all. A landmark study showed that employers are far less likely to call an applicant for an interview if their resume shows that they have been unemployed for a long period of time. That factor proved to be even more important than whether the applicant had any industry experience.

Or as human resources manager Kim Keough told the Wall Street Journal, "It's damned if you do, damned if you don't...The longer you are out of work, the more discriminatory companies get."

Long-term unemployment has consequences beyond the individual. Children with unemployed parents perform worse on tests and are more likely to repeat a grade in school. This affects people like Dan Strollo, a 42-year-old father of two who spoke about the difficulty of finding work as he neared the end of his benefits. He had applied to over 200 jobs, with no luck. As he put it, "The hurdles to find work these days are significantly more difficult than 10-20 years ago."

Tonight's State of the Union was encouraging because it showed that President Obama has heard the stories of people like Jerome Hardy and Dan Strollo. He is taking action because he knows that America demands action.

His minimum wage announcement comes days after federal contract workers went on strike and marched outside the Reagan and Smithsonian buildings, just blocks from the White House. Likewise, his renewed focus on unemployment discrimination comes shortly after leaders and union members led a rally around long-term unemployment, urging House Republicans to stop blocking an extension of long-term unemployment insurance.

But House Republicans did not budge. Just like they did not budge in their opposition to a minimum wage increase, or their opposition to the American Jobs Act in 2012, which would have provided a $4,000 tax credit for hiring the long-term unemployed.

If Congress won't act on civil rights, someone has to. And President Obama knows that he is someone who can.