09/12/2011 11:42 am ET Updated Nov 12, 2011

Right Away

Yes, Mr. President: right away is when we need Congress to enact your jobs package.

You are right to recognize the urgency of the matter. Tomorrow the Census Bureau will tell us how many people were poor or precariously close to poverty last year. The new survey is not likely to show improvement. In 2009, one-third of our nation was poor or near poor (below 200 percent of the poverty line, then $34,196 for a three-person family). We know high levels of joblessness have persisted since then. The six million unemployed for six months or more need action fast. So do the 25 million out of work or working fewer hours than they want and need, and the nearly 8 million households with children who at times in 2010 could not afford enough nutritious food.

So many millions of lives have been touched by perniciously high joblessness and hardship. The President's package contains elements that will target help where it is most needed. There are provisions to help the long-term unemployed, to improve blighted communities and to create jobs and expand training for especially hard-hit groups, including the 25 percent of youth who are out of work.

It is easy to imagine the right-wing members of Congress making a show of cooperation by agreeing to support employer tax cuts but rejecting all the other parts of the President's plan. That is something that President Obama should forcefully reject, and the majority of Congress should back him up. Enacting all the elements of the President's package will make a dent in joblessness by creating jobs, modernizing schools, rehabbing foreclosed properties and repairing roads. It will keep teachers, firefighters, and police on the job. Taken together, the components of the President's package will work. Tax breaks for businesses alone will not.

The essential elements of the President's package include
  • rebuilding low-income communities (modernizing schools, roads, restoring blighted neighborhoods);
  • preventing lay-offs and hiring hundreds of thousands of teachers and public safety workers;
  • continuing federal unemployment insurance for the long-term jobless;
  • targeting assistance to help the long-term unemployed get jobs and training;
  • connecting youth, veterans, and others with disproportionately high levels of joblessness to work, including subsidized work, training, and well-targeted incentives for employers to hire;
  • continuing reduced taxes for employees; and
  • preventing discrimination against the unemployed and ensuring vigorous application of minimum wage and other labor laws for those participating in subsidized work.
Together, these elements will generate jobs. But beyond that, they will protect some families from falling out of the middle class, and rebuild opportunities for the new poor and long-term poor to have a better life. Specifics within these elements can be modified, and in fact the President's package leaves plenty of room for states to design plans that work best for them. But there is a core that should not be dismantled: preventing millions of low-income people from becoming stuck in long-term unemployment; stopping the hemorrhaging of essential jobs in education and public safety; jumpstarting economic growth by modernizing our crumbling infrastructure; and protecting the jobless through continued unemployment benefits and labor law protections.

This won't be easy. If the intransigence of the right-wing continues, the only way such a package can be enacted is if it is included within the plan the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction is to develop by November 23. That plan can be approved by a simple majority in Congress and cannot be filibustered. It makes perfect sense for a ten-year deficit reduction plan to include provisions to reduce joblessness right away. The most sustainable form of deficit reduction is a strong economy in which millions more workers and profitable businesses are paying taxes (and millions fewer are impoverished and needing government services).

But of course there are many perils in taking this course. By incorporating the President's $450 billion jobs package in the deficit reduction plan, the "super committee" must find that much more in savings over the next ten years. If they make those savings by cutting services like Medicaid, the committee will be killing jobs as well as harming vulnerable people. That will undermine the job creation measures they seek to implement.

Sometimes there are no courses of action except perilous ones. We need jobs. We need to stop the dangerous increase in poverty and inequality. We must prevent the growth of a class of workers out of the labor force for so long that they cannot get back in. We need to save and expand low-income children's access to health care and education. These are not just moral imperatives; they are needed to rebuild a stable and strong economy. The President was right to point out that the people and corporations at the top, after long years of gaining while everyone else lost ground, must contribute to solving our economic problems. Waste in the military and in over-generous government contracts must be another source of savings. We can put together a plan for shared prosperity, but only if people across the nation demand, loudly and repeatedly, that the essential components of the President's jobs package are adopted.