The Unemployment Catastrophe: You, Too, Should Be Infuriated

Isaiah J. Poole

What if the nation’s jobless crisis received the same 24-7 media attention that the environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is now receiving?

That is the question that comes to mind as several progressive leaders addressed the nation’s unemployment catastrophe at the America’s Future Now! conference.

It is prompted in particular by New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, who this afternoon lambasted the “let them eat cake” attitude toward the unemployed of the political elite and the chattering class. “I’m not just affronted by that attitude. I’m infuriated by it,” he said.

He also showed why the unemployment problem facing America is as much a moral crisis as well as an economic one.

“America is turning into a nation that does not know what to do with its people,” he said, as the business sector pursues an economic model that considers workers to be obstacles to profitability, and thus the fewer of them, the better.

And while the people at the top are not feeling the consequences—Herbert noted that the unemployment rate among people earning more than $150,000 a year is under 4 percent—communities of people at the bottom of the economic ladder, for whom unemployment rates exceed 30 percent, feel the toxic impact of unemployment as do the Louisiana coastal communities under siege from the oil spewing from the BP’s deep-water well.

Actually, America does know what to do with its people. But elected officials of both parties are refusing to do what they know must be done: a full-court press to create jobs now—in both the private and public sector.

At a press conference at AFN, Terry O’Neill of the National Organization for Women laid out a four-point plan that should be the top priority of not only progressive activists but every elected official: First, enact a strong jobs bill, such as the Local Jobs for America Act. Second, extend the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, a product of Clinton-era welfare reform that is woefully inadequate in the face of today’s recession but at least puts some dollars into the hands of largely single mothers with children. Third, strengthen enforcement of equal pay laws, so that economic recovery is not shortchanged by the economic inequality of women earning only 77 cents for every dollar a man makes (68 cents for African-American women, and 58 cents for Latino women). Fourth, strengthen. not weaken, Social Security and Medicare.

In short, recognize that what got us into this economic mess was the folly of conservative spending and tax policies “and stop punishing ordinary people for the failures of the previous administration.”

“There will be no recovery until we solve the unemployment crisis,” said Deepak Bhargava, director of the Center for Community Change, who noted that as long as there is chronic unemployment, the country cannot make progress in addressing long-term budget deficits.

Bhargava cited a study by the National Urban League that said that if America was able to restore the 8 million jobs lost since the recession began in December 2007, there would be $235 billion in additional federal tax revenue available for deficit reduction. That’s on top of the $75 billion that the government would save in aid programs.

Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, also sought to stoke passion against congressional inaction on the jobs front and against misdirected concern about the federal deficit. “We don’t have a short-term deficit crisis, we have a short-term jobs crisis in this country,” Trumka said.

The AFL-CIO has its own five-point jobs program, which includes a financial transactions tax that he said would help pay for job-creation efforts but would not drive stock transactions to overseas markets.

Noting that Germany has enacted a balanced budget law that goes into effect in 2016 that it wants other countries in the Eurozone to enact, Trumka said that if such an amendment had been in effect in the United States, “we would have a depression in this country, not a recession.”

On Monday, several speakers at AFN plenary sessions said that progressives are being outflanked by the right in intensity on economic issues. Progressive Caucus Policy Institute director Darcy Burner estimated in congressional offices that “tea-party” supporters are outcalling progressives by as much as 10 to 1. Can we afford to have outrage stoked over a manufactured deficit problem overtake the fury we should feel over the real suffering of unemployed people?

It’s time to be infuriated and tell Congress to act.

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