Congress Needs to Listen to the Voices of Real People -- Not Sound Bites

05/18/2010 01:47 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Yesterday the Coalition on Human Needs sent out an alert asking people to call their congressional representatives in support of a bill that will extend the federal Unemployment Insurance program, provide aid to states, and fund important jobs programs. Early this morning I received some emails in response. One pointed out that joblessness is so bad that some have already exhausted all their benefits. Another talked about children's services being cut in her state. They are going to call Congress. I hope Congress listens.

Some Members of Congress are paying attention to other voices right now, particularly those who speak in well-packaged sound bites about the need to make cuts to shrink government costs. But they are forgetting that we cannot really recover while unemployment remains nearly 10 percent. The Center for Economic and Policy Research has estimated that such high levels of joblessness will result in one trillion dollars in lost wages - that means people cannot buy the items that keep our economy growing. They don't pay much in taxes either. They claim unemployment benefits. Deficits grow.

Government can help get the economy moving again, or it can keep it hobbled. Around the nation, hundreds of thousands of teachers, firefighters, and police are threatened with lay-offs. Services that protect children from abuse and neglect are losing essential staff. Cost-effective child support collection efforts are being undermined by cutbacks. More needy families are straining state Medicaid budgets, forcing states to either reduce access to health care, cut everything else, or do some of both.

Last summer, federal funds put more than 300,000 low-income youth to work. Summer is coming very soon, and so far, Congress has not approved youth jobs funding.

No wonder the electorate is increasingly angry. They feel government spending is not helping them. But the answer is not for Congress to cut off the assistance communities urgently need. They still need to invest in programs and services that pay off.

Mark Zandi, economist at Moody's Economy.Com, points out that every dollar spent on unemployment benefits creates $1.63 in economic activity. And every federal dollar paid towards state Medicaid costs results in $1.41 in economic growth. Ending such aid would slam the brakes on the economy, just when we are beginning to see some forward motion.

Later this week, the House of Representatives is expected to take up a bill that would extend unemployment benefits and heath care for the jobless through the end of the year; prevent emergency federal funding for Medicaid and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) from expiring; and, we hope, include funds for summer jobs for youth.

The bill - the American Jobs, Closing Tax Loopholes and Preventing Outsourcing Act (H.R. 4213) - has other provisions as well. It continues a number of tax breaks for businesses and families that Congress generally extends annually. It is also likely to prevent reductions in reimbursements to physicians in the Medicare program.

In previous legislation, Congress had decided that the tax breaks should be paid for through revenue sources that would offset their costs. Congress determined that other provisions - such as Medicaid and Medicare funding and unemployment insurance - did not need to be paid for since they were implemented in response to the country's economic emergency. With these provisions now gathered into one bill, some members of Congress are experiencing sticker shock. But the original deal made sense. If the House abandons it now, it will result in an abrupt end to still-needed federal aid to states. More than 20 states have assumed this extra federal Medicaid help will be available in crafting their own budgets - a reasonable assumption given that both the House and Senate have approved funding for this purpose at various points. If Congress pulls back now, state budget shortfalls will grow even worse.

That brings us back to the real world where more than six million people have been out of work for more than six months. One in four youth is unemployed. Hunger and poverty are growing. Instead of investing in education, communities are cutting back on everything from early childhood programs to college.

In the sound bite world, people holler about the deficit and out of control spending. Those shouting the loudest never want to invest in public services. They are playing on our fears. But they are the irresponsible ones. Shutting down funds for essential services will stall our economy now and hurt people in a way that will shrink our economic potential for years to come.

Through H.R. 4213, our representatives will get to choose between jobs and joblessness; between fueling economic growth or stalling it out. It won't solve all our problems. But the funding in this legislation will boost the economy in important ways. House members should remember the real world, not the sound bites, and vote for it.

To make sure your voice is heard, call your representative and insist he or she casts a vote in favor of real people - not sound bites.