Mr. President: This is What We Need

09/06/2011 06:20 pm ET | Updated Nov 02, 2011

We need jobs. The monthly snapshot of the unemployed, (in August still 9.1 percent), tells only part of the story. Looking over a whole year, close to one-third of workers have lost jobs or had their hours cut, according to a new Economic Policy Institute analysis. Families have been hit hard, with four in ten of those surveyed saying that they or someone in their family has been out of work in the past year.

So your upcoming speech about job creation is very important. It's clear you will be offering up proposals likely to be opposed by the extreme right wing now occupying seats in Congress. But your Administration must come up with a way to isolate the extremists and help Americans get back to work.

A first step is to speak the truth about what the nation needs, with proposals of sufficient scope to make a difference. Tens of millions of people directly affected by lost work, lost earnings and lost benefits will support plans that have a plausible chance of reaching them. Give people something to fight for and they will make it impossible for the extremists to prevail. That's just what happened when public opinion stopped proposals for immediate cuts to Medicare and Medicaid in the debt deal you signed in August.

What would the people I know be willing to fight for? We'd like to see the power of the federal government harnessed to get needed work done and to protect people from forces beyond their control.

  • Disaster Relief: States from North Carolina to Vermont have been devastated by torrential rains and flooding. Other states face or are still recovering from other natural disasters. There should be no delay in creating the jobs needed to clean up, repair and recover from these disasters, as well as prevent them from happening again. It is important to remember that recovery from disasters includes protecting families from loss of housing and food. We need workers who can distribute necessities and guide families back to security as much as we need repairs to bridges and roads.
  • Investing in Communities: Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky's Emergency Jobs to Restore the American Dream Act is the right approach. Her bill would create 2.2 million jobs renovating schools, restoring parks, rehabbing housing, repairing roads and public spaces, making buildings more energy efficient, and providing more health care, public safety and education. There would be more jobs for teachers, police and firefighters, and also jobs for youth and others with fewer skills and experience. It would be paid for by raising taxes on millionaires and billionaires and by eliminating handouts to big oil and corporations sheltering their profits offshore - an excellent way to ensure our tax policy matches our national needs.
  • Helping the Lowest-Income and Vulnerable People: Loss of work is highest among communities of color, with25 percent of African Americans and 22 percent of Hispanics either unemployed or underemployed in July. Additionally, 14.3 percent of people who have not finished high school are unemployed, as are more than 16 percent of people with disabilities and nearly 12 percent of women who are heads of households, according to the August Bureau of Labor Statistics findings. If your Administration does not want to leave a legacy of widening inequality and persistent poverty, it must make special efforts to target jobs to the most hard-hit groups. In part, that can be done by making investments where they are most needed. For example, low-income communities badly need infrastructure improvements and expanded access to health care and other social services. The people who live in these communities should have a chance to fill these needed jobs.
  • Helping the Long-Term Jobless: The federal program of unemployment benefits for the long-term unemployed will expire at the end of this year unless Congress acts. That would mean almost no one would be able to get unemployment insurance after exhausting state benefits, which do not exceed 26 weeks. What's more, some states have recently begun cutting the number of weeks they provide. The timing could not be worse. More than four in ten unemployed workers have been out of work for 27 weeks or more. In the months ahead, you need to make a strong, unwavering case for continuing federal benefits. That does not mean the long term unemployed only need cash aid. They need jobs. Your jobs plan should make a concerted effort to connect the long-term unemployed to every jobs initiative you propose. The low-income and long-term jobless should have the chance to work at subsidized temporary jobs meeting minimum wage and other Fair Labor Standards protections, and emphatically not as a requirement for receiving unemployment insurance.

Each of the above proposals has multiple benefits. By expanding the number of workers, we help families to have enough to eat and to be securely housed. The new EPI report tells us that the proportion of children with a parent who is unemployed or underemployed doubled from 2007 to 2010. Children are the nation's poorest age group. Their health and development will improve if their parents are earning more, an outcome that should be one of our highest priorities.

Further, improved transportation, school facilities, and health care in communities make them attractive for economic expansion, creating more jobs. And let's not forget that unemployment insurance benefits spur the economy too since the cash is spent in supermarkets, gas stations and hardware stores nationwide. For every dollar spent on jobless benefits, more than $1.60 in expanded economic activity is generated.

The extreme right does not believe in any of this. It is exploiting concerns about the deficit to weaken government's capacity to respond, whether to natural disaster or economic stagnation. But most Americans expect more of government; they expect it to play a key role in solving our problems. If your jobs speech offers real solutions, you will win our support.