It is now clear: our economy is shrinking, unemployment and underemployment are on the rise at nearly 20 percent, and a tsunami of foreclosures continues unabated–what we have on our hands is nothing less than a national emergency.

That’s why it’s so critical that good thinkers and progressive activists are on top of this, paying attention to the human costs of this Great Recession.

"I consider President Obama to be in the situation of having inherited a burning apartment building," said Lawrence Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), testifying before Congress. "He proceeded to gather all the available fire trucks and douse the fires in half the floors."

Mishel went on to describe the need now for a strengthened safety net, more fiscal relief to state and local governments to avoid further layoffs, a public service jobs program to benefit local communities, a job creation tax credit for every new hire, and greater spending on infrastructure.

Quicker than the deficit hawks can say "What about the debt?"–consider these smart words from former Labor Secretary Robert Reich. "When one out of six Americans is unemployed or underemployed, this is no time to worry about the debt," he writes. Reich describes how critics once said future generations would be paying for FDR’s debt due to Depression and World War II spending. But when the economy recovered and people were working and paying taxes again in the 1950s, "FDR debt had shrunk to almost nothing."

Reich proposes a WPA-style jobs program, with spending "on roads and bridges and schools and parks and everything else we need."

It’s clear the jobs situation would be far worse without the administration’s recovery package–EPI estimates it is saving or creating between $200,000 and $250,000 jobs per month. But as many of us at The Nation, and other progressive voices said at the time, it simply didn’t go far enough.

By all accounts the Obama administration is now setting its sights onnew measures aimed at job creation. Hopefully it will get Treasury Secretary Geithner and others to spend a little less time working their speed dials to talk to Big Finance CEOs, and more time speaking with hard-working people who can’t find work.

As The Nation‘s lead editorial reads this week, "Except for a military threat, no issue confronting a president is more serious than widespread unemployment. Without movement toward job creation, many Congressional Democrats could find themselves on the unemployment line after the 2010 election."