With the election nearing, Americans still know what they want: job creation. Unemployment is still elevated near 6 percent, and underemployment – including people who have given up looking for work, or who are working part-time when they want to be full-time – was still above 13 percent at last count.
And America’s employment problems precede the recession. That’s important because it suggests that this problem isn’t going away on its own. Underemployment hasn’t dipped below 8 percent in the last 10 years. Consider the decades-long stagnation of middle-class wages and the fact that it often takes two incomes to make ends meet, the long-term decline of union membership, the decimation of manufacturing, and the fact that higher education is becoming more of an economic necessity while also being less affordable. The 21st century labor market leaves too many Americans out in the cold.
America needs jobs, and not just any jobs. We need living-wage jobs that provide stability and security through regular working hours, paid time off and career paths for those who want to climb higher. And the economy is not creating those jobs on its own.
The good news is that where there’s a will, there’s a way. Americans want jobs, and the federal government has the means to deliver. Over a trillion dollars in tax breaks each year and historically high Pentagon spending mean that America has the cash to pay for job creation – if we really want to.
Here are three winning ways we could invest our dollars in things that America actually needs, and create good jobs in the process:
● Get Real About Climate Change
Americans are warming up to the idea that climate change is real, and that it poses a threat. But that hasn’t translated to wanting to do something about it.
Of course, we must. From coastal damage from violent storms to disastrous effects on agriculture, climate change is already hurting us. Even the Pentagon is warning about potentially catastrophic consequences of climate change for national security.
Given our collective lack of economic security, perhaps it’s not a surprise that we only really pay attention to climate change when its devastating impacts are looping continuously on our TV screens. But what’s the nudge America needs to get real about climate change?
Maybe more awareness of the tremendous economic benefits that could result from serious action. A recent report from University of Massachusetts’ Political and Economic Research Institute (PERI) and the Center for American Progress (CAP) suggests that if America invested fully in battling climate change, we could achieve a 40 percent reduction in U.S. carbon dioxide emissions within 20 years, and create a net increase of 2.7 million jobs in the process.
The kind of investment that PERI and CAP propose – around $200 billion a year – could be truly transformational to the American economy. And while the proposed $200 billion a year is a big investment, it’s less than the government currently manages to shell out to defense contractors each year.
● Invest in Infrastructure
American ingenuity has taken many forms, and our infrastructure achievements have been some of the most spectacular in the world. From bringing the world the internet, to railroads and the interstate highway system, to hydropower dams like the Hoover Dam that both awe us and provide us with renewable energy, to feats of engineering and art like the Golden Gate and Brooklyn Bridges, our infrastructure has long made Americans proud.
But that infrastructure is crumbling. Major infrastructure investments in the 20th century have been left to a slow and steady decline. This year Congress came within hours of allowing the Highway Trust Fund, a major funding source for states’ road repairs, to dry up – along with 700,000 jobs.
Construction jobs are good jobs. They pay well, and they don’t require a lot of formal education, making them a critical stepping stone to the middle class for workers without a college degree.
Infrastructure is an investment that makes good economic sense for the times we’re in. As former National Economic Council Director Larry Summers has pointed out, infrastructure is a sensible investment for our times: it can’t be offshored, unemployment among construction workers remains high, and interest rates are at historical lows. As Summers asks, if not now, when?
● Believe the Children Are Our Future
Americans talk a good game about this one, but we don’t put our money where our mouth is. Only two percent of all federal spending is for education.
President Obama proposed a modest funding level of $750 million to invest in Preschool for All in two thirds of the states. Despite strong bipartisan support for public preschool among Americans, his proposal has seen no serious congressional consideration and is not likely to be included when Congress revisits fiscal year 2015 funding levels in December.
But it should be. Public preschool is about as winning a proposition as there is. Evidence shows that quality preschool contributes to better outcomes later in life, and not just in education and career outcomes. Preschool contributes to better health and lower criminal activity, and it makes a particularly big difference for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, making it a crucial tool in the battle against economic inequality.
It’s also worthwhile as a pure investment: for every dollar invested in preschool, society saves as much as $17 down the road. At that rate, the president’s requested $750 million, which is a tiny blip on the radar of federal spending, would save more than $12 billion in years to come.
From the job creation perspective, a strong publicly supported preschool system would require many teachers with a credential like an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, and middle-class wages to match.
Each of these proposals requires new uses for our tax dollars. We should remember that America’s greatest achievements didn’t come through austerity or tax cuts; they came through heroic levels of public investment. Making that investment will create jobs now and a strong legacy for the future. Now, that’s a win.
Lindsay Koshgarian is research director for the National Priorities Project.