THE BLOG
05/26/2010 11:02 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Congress, Get To Work: America Needs Jobs

Crossposted from OurFuture.Org

"I have worked all my life."

It's something that's true of many Americans, whether employed or unemployed. But it has a special resonance for Americans who have worked hard, and are wiling to work, but face a jobless recovery. These are Americans whose needs and concerns will get special attention during a jobs plenary at America"s Future Now! in Washington starting June 7.

"I have worked all my life."

That was the phrase most often repeated by the seven citizens who testified at the "Putting America Back To Work: Direct Job Creation in Local Communities" forum, sponsored by Campaign for Community Change and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights. The forum was intended to rally support for the Local Jobs For America Act (HR 4812) -- which would:

  • Allot $23 billion dollars to create or retain jobs in education, including jobs to modernize or repair educational facilities. The Act would also provide $1.18 billion for the hiring and rehiring of law enforcement officials, $500 million to retain and hire firefighters, and $500 million for private sector on-the-job training.
  • Provide $75 billion in federal assistance to states and localities over two years for a Local Community Jobs Program. Funds could be used to directly create jobs to meet crucial community needs, and to retain existing public workers in the face of crushing budget crises. The Local Community Jobs program would:
    • Immediately reduce unemployment. The funding available would save or create 750,000 jobs. Direct job creation is the fastest, most effective way to get people back to work.


    • Ensure localities can maintain critical services. Communities across the country have been forced to lay off workers and cut services in the wake of falling revenues. This funding would ensure that states and localities can retain workers who provide needed services while putting people to work to address community needs that have long gone unmet. Positions could include staffing vital public and social services, such as expanding child care services and home health care aides for the elderly, and rehabilitating basic infrastructure, such as schools, community centers and parks.

    • Provide necessary economic stimulus to local communities and help put us back on the road to real economic recovery. Workers who are hired as a result of this program will spend their paychecks in their communities, providing a badly needed boost to the local economy that will help lay the foundation for more private sector hiring.

And, with all due respect to president Obama, those who say "government can't create jobs" are simply wrong. (Not to be flippant, but it created his job. The president is far to intelligent to start sounding like Michael Steele. One wonders what motivated that statement.) There are times when government can and must create jobs. As panelist Dr. Bernard E. Anderson -- economist, professor, and member of the National Urban League President's Council of Economic advisors pointed out, "when the private sector is unable to create sufficient jobs, the government must."

Dr. Anderson also pointed out that we don't have to go back to the 1930s and the Depression for an example. The last time we had an effective government jobs program was in 1973, under a Republican president -- Richard Nixon, who signed the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) into law. At its peak in 1977, created 725,000 jobs and by itself decreased the unemployment rate by 1%.

The president should not only take note of CETA, but also that even some of its critics say the problem with CETA was that it wasn't big enough.

Conservatives reading this brief history may feel justified in their scorn for government programs. But the problem with CETA was not that it embodied Big Government, but that it was not big enough. CETA left behind no lasting monuments like LaGuardia Airport and the Hoover Dam, no evocative art like the WPA murals in post offices and libraries. The administration of CETA was lax, but almost all of its scandals were small-bore local corruption.

Today, even more than in the 1970s, there is a moral argument for public service employment. While Barack Obama's stimulus package was advertised as shovel-ready, a public jobs program would be people-ready. The societal waste and the wrecked lives from double-digit unemployment will leave scars that may take decades to heal. But what liberals should have learned long ago from CETA is that effective management matters – and that an ill-designed program can turn a laudable idea into a laughing stock.

Today the words of seven ordinary people, from Mississippi to Maine, who put a human face on the country's unemployment emergency, and gave it voice.

"I have worked all my life."

Those were the words of people who have always worked, still want to work, and have worked hard at finding work—without success. Whether they were recently unemployed, long-term unemployed, or facing layoffs, none of them resembled the caricatures and stereotypes conservatives have used to portrayed jobless Americans as shiftless hand-out seekers, too lazy to look for jobs they would surely find if the only tried. They are hard-working Americans looking for a chance to contribute to their skills and efforts to a country that desperately needs them, doesn't appear to know them, and may be in the process of abandoning them.

Each of their stories, multiplied by millions in our economy, illustrates what the jobs data already tells us.

"I am a father," Charles Jenkins, 55, says by way of introducing himself, "and I have worked all of my adult life; more than 30 years. I am here testifying today because I need a job."

Employed by a as a driver for a transportation company, Jenkins was hospitalized in 2009 due to serious illness. Like too many American workers, Jenkins had no sick leave to fall back on, was was terminated. He began receiving unemployment benefits and food stamps.

Unemployed for nearly a year, Jenkins has applied for "10 to 12 jobs a week" without success. He has begun working as a community organizer in training at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, through the Targeted Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) Emergency Contingency Fund subsidized employment program. That will end on September 30, and Jenkins will join the unemployed African-American men in Chicago and the more than 1.4 million unemployed African-American men across the country.

"I have worked all my life, for more than 35 years," Nadina Patterson said as she began her remarks. She was laid off in February 2009, from a job she held for two years as a health outreach worker. She now volunteers with the Philadelphia Unemployment Project. Patterson has been looking for a job for 12 months, and has been unable to find a job despite 20 years of experience in human services. She fears losing her unemployment benefits will leave her with few options.

"If I lose my benefits, I won't be able to meet my needs for shelter, food, and health care. My family is impacted by the financial crisis and unemployment," she said speaking of her adult children. "They don't have the resources to help me."

"Represent millions just like me," said Patterson. "Today, I am a lobbyist for 31 million Americans like me."

Indeed she does represent millions who will not only be impacted by their own job loss, but by inevitable job cuts in essential services, as state and local governments resort to job cuts, having tried every alternative short of tax increases.

Those services are often provided by people like Mandy Alvar, a Certified Nursing Assistant who has worked for more than eight years providing in-home care to elderly and disabled people who would otherwise have to move to nursing homes or alternative care facilities. In May, Alvar learned that she will be laid off in the near future—between July and October.

If she finds another position, it's unlikely she will find one equivalent to the one she has for now. Alvar expects she will face a 20 percent loss in income in another position, and a complete lack of health insurance. While she's concerned about finding another position, Alvar is especially worried about her clients, who will lose much-needed services. "Because," she says, " no agency is going to replace those services."

Alvar spoke of the "ripple effect" layoffs like hers have on those who need services, and spoke of a client who attempted suicide because of the potential loss of vial care.

"We are losing vital benefits," she said, "that will not be replaced and the impact on health and well-being is devastating.

Laurent F. Gilbert Sr., mayor of Lewiston, Maine, spoke of the dire circumstances facing cities like his, would benefit from direct local job creation through retention of current workers, restoration of laid-off workers, and expansion in areas where services are desperately needed. Budget shortfalls that result from state budget cuts in his city have forced local buts in winter plowing, street lighting, and fire inspection -- all with obvious implications for public safety.

Mayor of a city that was once home the nations shoe-making and textile industry, which declined in the 1980s, Gilbert spoke as the mayor of a city that is now home to two of the poorest districts in the state. And he spoke of someone who has witness the human cost of long-term joblessness. "I witnessed first hand," Mayor Gilbert said, "the suicide of a neighbor who was employed for years in the shoe-making industry, after 8 months of being unemployed with no hope of finding work.

For millions of Americans, of any age, having a job means having a future worth looking forward to -- or having one at all.

Rosemary Hicks looked forward to the future. She grew up expecting to go to college, graduate and find work. In May of 2010, she graduated magna cum laude from Tuskegee University, with a degree in sales and marketing. Rosemary is the first in her family to earn a college degree. Since then, she has applied for 30 jobs in just five months. But, like many recent graduates, Rosemary finds that she is competing with older workers who are recently laid-off, have years of experience, and are willing to take the entry-level positions that Hicks and her peers seek.

Anxious to start a career, so that she can begin to pay back student loans and help support her retired parents, Hicks represents millions of young Americans who "need to know the American dream is still obtainable," but may find it placed permanently out of reach by chronic, long term joblessness.

It took the Rev. George Cummings of Imani Community Church & PiCO-Oakland Community Organizations to frame the issue in moral terms. Speaking of the 18 percent general rate unemployment in his own community and the 30 percent unemployment rate among young African Americans, Cummings defined the jobs issues as "an urgent moral necessity."

"It is a fundamental question," he said, "of the character of our nation."

How can anyone say he's wrong?

Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. juxtaposed the moral issue against the political challenges. Pointing out that she is a former recipient of public assistance herself, she defined unemployment in this country as an emergency that requires direct action. Lee framed unemployment as a higher priority than the deficit.

"The best strategy for lowering the deficit," Lee said, "is to keep Americans working, and get Americans back to work right in their hometowns and communities."

And she's right. Getting people back to work means people earn money that they spend and put back into the economy. That means an increase in state and local income from sales tax, and an increase in demand for products and services that will not only save existing jobs in the public and private sector, but increase consumer confidence and lower insecurity — all of which leads to increased demand and economic growth driven by high employment.

But the austerity that deficit hawks advocate so enthusiastically won't get us there. And it won't happen by cutting corporate taxes and hoping for the best. That's been tried for 30 years. Look where it got us.

"This is what change is all about," Lee said.

And change is what Americans voted for. It's what millions of jobless Americans want.

It's what Charlie Jenkins wants. It's what Nadina Patterson wants. It's what Mandy Alvar wants. It's what Mayor Gilbert and his constituents want. It's what Rosemary Hicks wants.

And they're all ready to work for it.

Now, Congress and the White House need to meet them halfway, and commit to direct investment in job growth.