A federal program of direct job funding, even at a time when unemployment is expected to exceed 10 percent for the next several months, is the third rail of any discussion about reducing unemployment. But to say that the government should not, to borrow a phrase from green-energy activist Van Jones, put people to work doing the work that needs to be done, is not only inhumane, it makes no economic sense. It’s worth making the effort to get such a program into the political mainstream.
One element in the five-point jobs program unveiled Monday by the Economic Policy Institute is a public service jobs program. “If the private sector can’t put people back to work, then the public sector must,” the report said.
EPI proposes a program that will spend $40 billion a year over three years to employ one million people. The money would be distributed through the Community Development Block Grant program. From the report:
The CDBG formula targets communities based on levels of short-term and long-term economic distress, as reflected in measures such as poverty, population decline, and age of housing stock. The formula could be improved with measures of unemployment and long-term unemployment, but to speed startup the first year could use the existing formula.
The proposal parallels one of the major planks in the AFL-CIO’s own five-part jobs program released last month, in which the union called for putting people to work “restoring our environment, providing child care and tutoring, cleaning up abandoned houses and more.” These jobs, both the AFL-CIO and EPI stress, would not replace existing public-sector jobs, which both groups propose to save through a separate program of aid to state and local governments designed to prevent budget cuts to vital services. Both organizations also agree that the jobs should pay prevailing wages.
This program is particularly important because it may be the only way to quickly and effectively address the uneven impact of the recession in urban areas and on people of color. In September, when the national unemployment rate was 9.5 percent, the unemployment rate in the Los Angeles metropolitan area was almost 12 percent, in the Las Vegas area almost 14 percent, almost 15 percent in Jackson, Miss., nearly 16 percent in Flint, Mich., and more than 17 percent in the Detroit area. The unemployment rate among African Americans in October was 15.7 percent and among Hispanics 13.1 percent, compared to 9.5 percent among white Americans. Among African Americans between 16 and 19 years old, that rate is now more than 40 percent.
People of color and the communities they live in will not be the beneficiaries of the kind of untargeted tax cuts that Republicans will insist on proposing. These communities are enduring the one-two punch of private-sector disinvestment and public sector inability to spend. We can put $40 billion to good use on a long list of desperately needed public projects that will get dollars flowing into paychecks and outward into the communities of the people hired to do the work. What we will get in return is communities and individuals better positioned to take advantage of the private-sector recovery when it comes.
By all means, we should take such steps as extending unemployment benefits to people who are out of work, another plank in the EPI and AFL-CIO agendas. But what unemployed people living in a community where as many as one in five of their neighbors are also out of work are looking for is not unemployment check; they are looking for a paycheck. Our allies in Congress should not be intimidated by the reflexive anti-government rhetoric of the right in saying, as the EPI has, that when the private sector can’t put Americans to work, the public sector must.