12/10/2009 05:03 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Caught In the Storm - We Need a Safety Net

Across the country, millions of people remain unemployed and more people are working harder and longer than ever before to make ends meet. While millions are sacrificing and stretching budgets to make ends meet, Wall Street, in true Scrooge fashion, is getting ready to pay out obscene bonuses to its top executives.

It is in this context that President Obama convened a summit last week at the White House to talk about the need for jobs, and that we release our report, Battered by the Storm. The report, authored by Jobs with Justice, the Institute for Policy Studies, Center for Community Change, and Legal Momentum, is being released as the debate around the need for jobs -- or as some have said, the need for jobs with justice, heats up in Washington D.C.

The study, which examines the impact of the economic crisis on unemployment, poverty, hunger, job creation, and the "social safety net," paints a somber picture of a struggling U.S. economy through statistics and the stories of people living through tough times. The stories in Battered By the Storm should serve as a reminder to those engaged in the debate about jobs, financial reform, and fixing the economy that at the end of the day these disputes are about more than partisan politics. Working people want justice, and they are waiting to see if elected officials will take a stand for them.

The study's authors offer practical and affordable remedies to rebuild a social safety net, as well as funding mechanisms that would show that in America we hold people and corporations accountable.

The Storm

Seventy-five years ago, New Deal programs created in response to the Great Depression laid a broad foundation for economic protection. We argue in the report that over the past 30 years, the country has seen the destruction of many essential programs that provided support to people who, despite working hard, were in need of a helping hand.

The report shows that the rise in unemployment has been brutal across most regions of the country and has crossed racial, sex, and geographical lines. The overall national child poverty rate is expected to increase to 25% by the end of 2009 (50% for African-American children). Unemployment has risen from 5.1% to 9.5% for whites, 6.2% to 13.1% for Latinos, and 8.9% to 15.7% for African-Americans. Our report dismantles the notion that only "lazy" or "irresponsible" people are suffering, noting that "traditional" two-parent and employed households are suffering in the current crisis as are others.

The New Safety Net

Our report argues that we need to rebuild the country's safety net, and we offer concrete solutions to the problems faced by millions of Americans.

Some of our policy recommendations would cost no money to taxpayers, and would come as much needed relief to millions. Foreclosure relief using some of the TARP funds approved by President Bush, and legislation allowing home owners the "right to rent" their homes instead of losing them, as promoted by economist Dean Baker, are two examples of creative solutions Congress may want to examine.

Other policy changes we recommend would cost money, but are necessary investments in our country's future. A public jobs program that pays living wages and provides good benefits to its workforce could not only put millions to work, but also lay the foundation for rebuilding devastated communities across the country. An extension of unemployment benefits and assistance, like COBRA and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), would go a long way towards helping the millions who are about to lose the little help they're currently getting. We recommend that the federal government send money state and local governments who are facing budget deficits and on the verge of cutting needed social services.

How to Pay for the Safety Net

The economic storm hasn't been devastating to those at the very top, as evidenced by the continued success of Wall Street and the giant bonuses on the way.

We argue for a tax on financial transactions, reversing the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts, passing legislation to put an end to overseas tax havens, equalizing tax rates of capital gains and dividends with that of the tax rate of wages, and returning to pre-Reagan taxes on the wealthiest 1% by re-establishing a tax bracket on those making over $2 million a year. The revenue from these changes could pay for some of the policy recommendations that require financing.

Moving Forward

A change in principles and values is necessary to move beyond this crisis. For the past 30 years the idea of private has trumped the public good. Profits have come before people and communities. Demonization and accusation have come before understanding and support. Incompetent government has replaced effective stewardship.

In short, the nation has moved from We to Me. Along the way, we've hid the problems and shame that come with loss of wages, jobs, livelihoods, and communities. We've blamed ourselves and those around us, never thinking to look at the forces that stood to profit from us.

If the nation is to move forward, we need solutions like the ones outlined in the study. More importantly, however, it will require that we as working people work together to build a boat to ride out the storm.

Sarita Gupta was appointed the Executive Director of Jobs with Justice (JwJ) in 2007. Sarita had served for five years as the national field director, overseeing the national field program and leading on strategic programs such as health care justice, organizing and collective bargaining rights campaigns, and immigrant workers' rights. At Jobs with Justice, our goal is to build a strong, progressive labor movement that works in coalition with community, faith, and student organizations to build a broader global movement for economic and social justice.