I was among the millions who eagerly looked forward to President Obama’s speech on jobs last week, among the millions who hoped our President would finally get his arms around the issue that plagues millions of Americans. The official unemployment rates, after all, are nothing more than a pleasant fiction. The 9.1 percent unemployment rate for August is actually a whopping 16.2 percent. For African Americans, the unemployment rate, reported at 16.7 percent, looks more like 29.3 percent. For African American men, the unemployment rate, reported at 18 percent, is more like 32 percent when discouraged workers, people who have dropped out of the labor force, and those who work part time but need full time work are added into the equation. The average unemployed American has been out of work for 10 months! Some have not been working for as many as two years! Debt ceiling notwithstanding, the unemployment situation is our nation’s greatest challenge at this time.
I was pleasantly surprised by President Obama’s speech. He showed an amazing firmness, and reminded Congress that those who are unemployed have no time to wait for our legislators to get their act together. He called for a $457 billion stimulus package that included, money to repair at least 35,000 schools, Teachers in every state will be put back to work. The President paid special attention to young people, veterans, the long-term unemployed, and construction workers. There are provisions for infrastructure repair. And there are tax benefits for those employers who hire the long-term unemployed.
Of course, the last time we did stimulus, money did not trickle down to the African American community. This time, money will be distributed through mayors, not governors, and targeting cities implicitly targets the African American community. Money is also targeted to communities with high levels of poverty, high unemployment, and high foreclosure rates, again, more likely to be communities with large numbers of African Americans. At the same time, civil rights laws must be enforced so that African American contractors have the same change as others to benefit from this stimulus. According to some estimates, only three percent of the money from the first stimulus trickled down to African Americans. That can’t be repeated with this second stimulus.
While the president’s speech was quite effective, the American Jobs Act has yet to be drafted. Further, the political gamesmanship around the speech, and the disrespectful scorn of some Republicans, do not bode well for this jobs bill. Republicans will have to cooperate in passing some form of a jobs bill, or they will be labeled obstructionist and bear the weight of high unemployment rates moving into the 2012 election. But the President’s proposal, if watered down, may not generate enough jobs to make a difference.
If Congress works quickly, legislation can be passed within the month, and some provisions implemented before the end of the year. If they work more slowly, it is not likely that we’ll see change in the employment situation before spring. Already, there have been both positive and negative signs. Some have pledged to cooperate with President Obama, but others have dug their heels in and opposed any stimulus. While stimulus is much needed, it may well simply put a band aid on thee festering sore that our economy has become. To be sure, President Obama said all of the right things, speaking of education, competitiveness, small business growth and development, and job creation. As he indicated, South Korea is hiring teachers while we are laying them off. China and India are investing in education, while we are divesting. This legislation moves us in the right direction, but it does not deal with some of the structural problems that plague our economy, nor does it deal with the misplaced priorities that our nation has embraced.
I don’t expect a single piece of legislation to address all of these challenges. Indeed, I am heartened to see the legislation that has been proposed. This legislation is an absolute step in the right direction, but much more must be done before our upside down economy is turned right side up.