The official unemployment rate of 10.2 percent is the worst in a quarter century.
In several regions of the United States — Michigan, parts of Ohio and Indiana, stretches of New England and the rural south, historically depressed urban areas — the jobless figures are so acute that they have become the definitional social, economic and political concern.
These numbers are bad.
And they are likely to get worse — potentially, if we experience a so-called “W” recession, in which the economy takes another deep dip, much worse.
How much worse, and for how long, will determine the extent to which concerns about joblessness will determine the outcome of the 2010 elections and set the course for the remainder of the Obama administration.
That political reality makes President Obama’s White House summit on jobs, which will be held Thursday, the seminal event of a week that may well be the most newsworthy of his young administration.
Yes, joblessness is a bigger deal than Afghanistan.
Yes, joblessness is a bigger deal than health care.
Yes, joblessness is a bigger deal than the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen and the cap-and-trade fight.
It is a bigger deal, even, than Tiger Woods.
Don’t get read these words wrong. Afghanistan, health care and climate change matter. (Tiger Woods, not so much.) These challenges may pose more profound long-term threats and have more serious consequences than transitory joblessness numbers.
But if unemployment keeps rising — if it gets to 12-, 13-, 14-percent officially, and over 20 percent unofficially — it will be the only issue for the great masses of Americans who will tip the country’s political balance in a direction that either empowers or disempowers the Obama administration when it comes to addressing fundamental social, environmental and foreign policy concerns.
In other words: It’s still the economy, stupid.
So what should we hope for from the jobs summit?
Something real, not tinkering around the edges, and not a reprise of the tepid stimulus initiative that spent more on tax cuts for well-to-do Americans than it did for actual job creation.
The intervention must be dramatic, primarily because of the social concern and economic concerns. There is a mounting sense of hopelessness in many regions of the country and it is grounded in a reality that is too infrequently noted: Since the current recession began in December, 2007, the United States has lost more than eight million jobs. This country has experienced 22 consecutive months of job losses, which the AFL-CIO correctly identifies as “the longest such losing streak in 70 years.”
There are a lot of plans out there, some warmed over versions of approaches that have failed in the past (more tax cust for the rich), some visionary proposals that ask us to imagine the possibilities of a transformational 21st century (groundbreaking green jobs initiatives).
The AFL-CIO has developed a smart proposal that focuses squarely on job creation and retention — the interventions that get to the heart of the matter — as well as needed steps to aid those who are now out of work.
The labor federation is pressing the Obama administration and Congress to move quicky to:
1. Extend the lifeline for jobless workers. Unless Congress acts now, supplemental unemployment benefits, additional food assistance and expansion of COBRA health care benefits will expire at the end of the year. They must be extended for another 12 months to protect working families from bankruptcy, home foreclosure and loss of health care. Extending benefits also will boost personal spending and create jobs throughout the economy.
2. Rebuild America’s schools, roads and energy systems. America still has at least $3 trillion in unmet infrastructure needs. We should put people to work to fix our nation’s broken-down school buildings and invest in transportation, green technology, energy efficiency and more.
3. Increase aid to state and local governments to maintain vital services. State and local governments and school districts have a $178 billion budget shortfall this year alone–while the recession creates greater need for their services. States and communities must get help to maintain critical frontline services, prevent massive job cuts and avoid deep damage to education just when our children need it most.
4. Fund jobs in our communities. While workers go without jobs, important work is left undone in our communities. We should put people to work restoring our environment, providing child care and tutoring, cleaning up abandoned houses and more. These are not replacements for existing public jobs. They must pay competitive wages and should target distressed communities.
5. Put TARP funds to work for Main Street. The bank bailout helped Wall Street, not Main Street. We should put some of the billions of dollars in leftover Troubled Asset Relief Program funds to work creating jobs by enabling community banks to lend money to small- and medium-size businesses. If small businesses can get credit, they will create jobs.
Jobs summiteers would be wise to consider smart ideas presented by Senator Russ Feingold, D-Wisconsin, to establish tax incentives for job creation and by Senator Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, to increasing federal support for “work-share” programs that provide incentives to companies to keep workers on the job.
And they should definitely two additional items to their agenda — the restructing of the auto-industry bailout to prevent plant closures in the U.S. and the adoption of a new approach to international trade that addresses outsourcing of jobs and the country’s gaping trade deficit. As it happens, a smart initiative on trade, the Trade Reform, Accountability, Development, and Employment Act, was introduced this week in the Senate by Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown and has attracted more than 125 supporters in the House.
“We want trade and we want more of it. But, we need a new direction,” explains Brown. “Done wrong, trade sends our jobs overseas. Done right, trade can foster new business and job growth at home, and can lift up workers in developing nations. The TRADE ACT will help Congress and the White House craft a trade policy that benefits workers, business owners, and our nation.”
Brown’s right. Addressing unemployment requires a multifaceted response. Job creation is important. But it is also important to take steps to end the hemorrhaging of jobs that ugliest and most certain byproduct of flawed bailout and trade policies.