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The Other Main Street: Unemployment, Deficits & False Choices

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A popular metaphor this past year ran something like this: "Enough for Wall Street; let's take care of Main Street." Wall Street symbolizes the interests of bankers and big business interests. Main Street is purported to symbolize the interests of ordinary Americans.

But not all Main Streets are alike. Life is grim on most Main Streets, but some Main Streets are far worse than others. Take Martin Luther King Boulevard in Austin, TX, or Martin Luther King Drive in Chicago, IL, or Martin Luther King Street in Jackson, MS. There are said to be more than 650 streets named after Dr. King in 39 states. Aside from the name, they all have something else in common: nearly all of them are located in predominately African-American communities. This is a different kind of Main Street, one where the unemployment rate isn't the official 10.2%, or even the "real rate" of 17.2% (counting discouraged workers and part-time workers who want to work full time); instead the reality on MLK Main Street is an agonizing 24.3%.

This is where bankruptcy rates, lack of health care, and unemployment reach numbers that Wall Street - and its politician friends -- can't imagine and that would not be tolerated on the mythical Main Street. All those MLK Streets are short of everything but hope. That hope is the gift of their namesake, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This African American History Month, our history is strikingly similar to our present. It's why President Obama spent part of Washington, DC's Snowmageddon week meeting with civil rights leaders Marc Morial, Ben Jealous and Al Sharpton.

Not since The Great Depression has the general population seen the unemployment rate as high as it is today on hundreds of America's MLK Streets. And unemployment there hasn't been below 10% since the Clinton Administration.

Are there solutions? Of course. The AFL-CIO's five-point program is a good start. While not specifically targeted to African Americans, it would be a boon as they are over represented in the communities that have been hit hardest. The Center for Community Change has also proposed a Community Jobs Campaign to create millions of jobs at the community level, targeting the long-term unemployed and low-income workers. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) has introduced a bill, HR 4268, the Put America to Work Act of 2009.

Americans for Democratic Action has also championed a "Corps Budget" to pump added funds into three proven programs: The Job Corps, AmeriCorps and Peace Corps, giving young people of all races a real chance for that first job. There are other constructive proposals, and the best all have the same purpose: short-term relief from the Great Recession, and long-term strategies to address the economic disparities that separate Wall Street, Main Street, and Martin Luther King Street.

The plain truth is that in a time of recession only the federal government has the ability to invest, inasmuch as only the federal government can run up a deficit which times like these necessitate. Increasing the deficit is essential today to put more Americans to work, so they can spend money in their communities to care for their families while also bolstering business and paying income taxes (federal income taxes, state income taxes, social security taxes, etc). Current efforts by some Members of Congress, editorial writers, and television and radio blowhards to focus on the deficit and to slam on the brakes while millions are out of work are misguided. Moreover, many of the deficit hawks misrepresent the causes of the deficit, claiming the Obama administration's anti-recession measures are at fault. The nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has pointed out that President Obama's programs and the 111th Congress haven't caused our current deficit problems. The tax cuts enacted under President George W. Bush, the unpaid-for wars in Afghanistan, and Iraq, and the economic downturn together explain virtually the entire deficit over the next ten years. (Kathy A. Ruffing and James R. Horney, "Where Today's Large Deficits Come from: Economic Downturn, Financial Rescues, and Bush Era Policies," CBPP, Feb. 17, 2010.)

The deficit hawks in Congress are hounding the President, holding vital new economic investments hostage to their long-term goals of shrinking entitlement programs, even through these programs have been critical to preventing even greater poverty and an even deeper recession. The best way to address the deficit is to end the recession and put people to work in private and government jobs, creating taxpayers, thus reducing the need for remedial government spending and reducing the demand for such programs as Medicaid, Food Stamps, WIC, free school lunches, and unemployment compensation.

A choice between a job program and deficit reduction is a false choice. We need to end the Great Recession and put millions of Americans back to work. No budget freeze gimmicks can accomplish those goals; it will take hard choices by elected officials representing Wall Street, Main Street, and Martin Luther King Street. Because at the end of the day, no matter what street you live on, we all live in the same United States of America, where we must manage to thrive together.

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