The largely positive January jobs report – 257,000 new jobs created, and only a slight uptick in the unemployment to 5.7 percent due to more people coming into the job market – raises a key question: Can this fragile growth be protected from a Republican Congress that seems hell-bent on crushing it?
Even with the upbeat headlines generated by this report, which includes news that the past few months of job numbers were actually better than first reported, it bears repeating that the economy is moving forward in spite of the fact that conservatives in Congress have a foot on the brakes. Austerity policies have largely set the parameters of the policy debate over how to grow the economy for the past four years.
As a result, our annual budget deficits have dramatically fallen, but other deficits have risen: in infrastructure investment, in people investment, in wage growth relative to economic and productivity growth – and in jobs: The Economic Policy Institute calculates this jobs deficit at 5.7 million; that’s the number of jobs that the economy would need to create to get back to where we were before the recession. At the rate we’re going, it would be well into 2017 before we fully repaired the damage to job opportunities done by the recession and the policies that helped foster it.
We will need accelerated growth to sustain and build upon the gains that the economy has made, and to spread those gains to groups and communities that are being left behind.
In the debate over how best to do that, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has so far set the gold standard with his $1 trillion infrastructure spending proposal, which would create 13 million jobs over the next five years by funding critical needs in our transportation, water, power and broadband networks, as well as other public assets. The Obama administration has put forward a far more modest set of proposals, but in doing so he has taken the correct step of declaring that the era of “mindless austerity” must end and that it is time to focus on the unfinished business of economic recovery and rebuilding the middle class, rather than catering to the continuing Republican obsession with cutting taxes for the wealthy and shrinking government services for the rest of us.
It is also time to step up targeted efforts to help the long-term unemployed. The number of people unemployed for more than 27 weeks went up slightly in December, to 2.8 million. The total number of people who have been unemployed for 15 weeks or more is up to 4.1 million. Both figures are significant improvements from a year earlier, but the long-term unemployment rate remains higher than it was before the recession, said Rick McHugh, an attorney with the National Employment Law Project.
It’s important that these workers have borne the brunt of an anti-government-spending attack by Republicans at both the federal level and the states, in the form of congressional Republicans blocking the continuation of emergency benefits for workers unemployed for more than 26 weeks and state-level actions that also shortened the time workers could claim benefits. As a result, the percentage of unemployed people receiving benefits is at a record low of 27 percent, according to a NELP report released this week, “The Job Ahead: Advancing Opportunity for Unemployed Workers.”
McHugh said that one way to help the unemployed is through government-funded counseling and mentoring programs, such as one in Nevada that McHugh says has been successful in connecting unemployed people to jobs more quickly, thereby reducing the need for spending on income subsidies. “It saved money, taking into account the staff time,” he said. But so far business groups that agitate the most about the need to cut government spending and about the need for more workers have now shown an interest in an approach that addresses both problems while benefiting workers, McHugh said.
That’s just one example of that McHugh calls “the disconnect between what the elites are willing to consider and what the economy really needs.”
In 2014 more than 3.1 million new jobs were created in spite of the Republican austerity drag on the economy – and in spite of wrong-headed trade policies that led to an increase in our trade deficit and more lost jobs as a result. What’s called for now is a continued push for a growth agenda and against a Republican agenda that would insist on more tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations, less regulation, and fewer places for people being left behind in today’s economy to turn for help.