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Second Act: Obama's Jobs Plan Echoes An Earlier Landmark Employment Bill

Posted by Will Rice (will) on Nov 07 2011 at 12:53 PM
FALL 2011 >>

By Lisa R. Ransom

The dark tunnel that holds America’s economic future captive could be immediately illuminated by Congress with bipartisan, common-sense policies and initiatives that put people back to work, stabilize our financial landscape, increase our global competitiveness and move this nation forward. Those that “truly represent the interest of the American people” need to leave their political rhetoric at the door to address the people’s business, remembering why they were elected and what is at stake for our nation.

Every day we are bombarded with sound bites that tell us how practical, value-added jobs legislation to help American families bring home a paycheck, pay their mortgages and utilities, feed their families and cover their medical expenses is being either filibustered or ignored – allegedly for the sake of the very same American people’s values. And every day the clock runs down on families trying and failing to regain their financial footing. When a person loses his or her job or a family loses their home, exactly what “American value” is served?

The concepts of full employment, growth in production, price stability, and the balance of trade and budget contained within President Obama’s American Jobs Act echo similar goals of an earlier act: the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act of 1978.

The basis of the Humphrey-Hawkins Act is that every American who is able and willing to work should have the opportunity to gain useful paid employment at fair rates of compensation. With unemployment stuck at 9.1 percent (16.7 percent for African-Americans, 11.3 percent for Latinos), such a simple but powerful principle has never been more important.

In a September 2010 article in “The American Prospect”, Cornell University professor Jefferson Cowie advocated resurrecting the spirit of the original Humphrey-Hawkins legislation. He noted the similarities between our current economic meltdown and the double-digit unemployment of the 1970s--and the differences in political response:

“To contemporary ears, the idea of a federally guaranteed job sounds like crazy talk, but the astonishing historical fact is that the Humphrey-Hawkins Act had the legitimacy to be passed and signed into law.”

Humphrey-Hawkins explicitly sets specific numerical goals for the federal government to attain in moving workers from joblessness to employment.  It asserts that “the federal government is responsible for using all practicable programs and policies to promote full employment, real income and  balanced growth, adequate productivity growth, proper attention to national priorities, and reasonable price stability.” 

By getting teachers, construction workers and others back on the job; providing overdue reforms to our unemployment insurance system to help people transition back into the workplace;.assisting our returning veterans in finding living-wage employment after honorably serving our nation; and strengthening small businesses, manufacturing and American innovation, President Obama’s  American Jobs Act is a 21st century complement to the 1978 law.
Believe it or not, even in this economic crisis, there are those who actually root for a certain level of joblessness. They believe that an unemployment rate that’s “too low” leads to runaway wages, inflation and high interest rates.  Apparently lost on such callous economic observers are the benefits that derive from more income and more tax revenue from an employed work force, less poverty and less need for public assistance, and a stronger place for America in the global marketplace.

Most economists understand the importance of federal investment in America’s workers. Even Reagan Administration economic advisor and Nobel laureate Milton Friedman has expressed support for the New Deal’s response to the Great Depression of the 1930s, noting the importance of “providing relief for the unemployed, providing jobs for the unemployed, and motivating the economy to expand.”

Fast-forward to 2011. Moody’s economist Mark Zandi believes the President’s jobs proposal would boost confidence and prevent the U.S. from sliding back into recession.  According to Zandi, “The plan would add 2 percentage points to GDP growth next year, add 1.9 million jobs, and cut the unemployment rate by a percentage point.” That equates to two million Americans who would greatly appreciate the opportunity to earn the money they need to pay their bills and feed their families.

Economist and Bennett College president Julianne Malveaux makes the same point with her customary refreshing candor: “There is a jobs bill in play, and it will cost us nearly $450 billion. It will put teachers, construction workers, and others back to work. It’s a viable plan that doesn’t offer everything, but it is a step in the right direction. Can we focus on the substance, not the rhetoric?”  

So why even as we face record long-term unemployment is America witnessing a legislative blockade of urgently needed jobs for its people?   Why has partisan politics taken precedence over effective policy that brings desperately needed relief to families and new strength to our economy?’ What political agenda is important enough to sell out America’s economic stability and future competitiveness?

This isn’t rocket science. It simply requires favoring balanced approaches over extremist ideology. It’s about partisan-absent policies that actually get people back on the job and businesses making money and not political speechifying. And as for those criticizing the plan that’s been put on the table while offering little in terms of a bipartisan, comprehensive and timely alternative: it’s about time to put up or shut up. Again, the clock is ticking.

Lisa R. Ransom is President and CEO of the Augustus F. Hawkins Foundation for Education and Workforce Development in a Global Economy.  She is a granddaughter of the late U.S. Representative Gus Hawkins (D-CA).