Katrina vanden Heuvel: A jobs crisis stuck on the back burner

Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly stated that Rep. Keith Ellison is from Michigan. He is from Minnesota. This column has been updated.

July 9, 2013

Turmoil in Egypt. Edward Snowden’s travel plans. Immigration reform’s fortunes. Obamacare’s troubles. The Weiner-Spitzer return to politics. There’s no shortage of items absorbing political energy and media bandwidth. But simmering below all of this is a crisis that goes without the immediate attention it demands. Last Friday morning, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported yet another month of lackluster jobs numbers. While Washington has long since lost any sense of urgency regarding the jobs crisis, this is an issue that continues to poll at the top of Americans’ concerns.

Our economy is stuck at just over 2 percent growth, and the rate of productivity is worse than anemic. We have hit a point where an unemployment rate of 7.6 percent inspires cheers of “it could’ve been worse!” The result is a painful “new normal” for too many of our fellow Americans.

Few commentators even mention that most of the 195,000 jobs added last month, as well as the ones added in the last few years, are low-paying, temporary, part time and usually without benefits. Much of the job growth we have seen is in restaurant, retail and temporary work — the sort of jobs that rarely offer basic security, let alone a foothold for people to climb into the middle class.

For working families, the struggle is painful, persistent and real: Hourly wages have plummeted to record lows, while executive pay has soared to record highs. There is no longer an income gap; there is now an income gulf. In 1978, the average American chief executive earned 26.5 times more than the average worker. Today, that gap is four times larger, with chief executives taking home 206 times more than average workers.

The crisis is disproportionately affecting minorities and younger Americans. Youth unemployment is at a staggering 16.1 percent, while African Americans are at 13.7 percent and Latinos are at 9.1 percent. The picture we are left with is of a severe shortage of jobs, in which millions of Americans drop out of the labor force in frustration and despair.

Meanwhile, the Republican Party, not least its “intellectuals,” such as Paul Ryan, has come to fetishize the values of Ayn Rand — radical individualism, a hatred of government intervention and spending — and the sort of austerity policies that have proved to be a disaster all over the world. They display adoration for the wealthy and apathy toward the working, and non-working, families that they claim to represent.

Recent analysis by the Economic Policy Institute shows that after four years of recovery, we’re only one-fifth of the way out of the hole left by the recession. At this rate, we won’t close the jobs gap until 2020. That’s too long for out-of-work Americans who continue to suffer.

Fortunately, some in the media are speaking out. And dedicated lawmakers, including members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and other thoughtful Democrats in both the House and the Senate, continue to introduce strong, smart bills to put people back to work. They are stymied only by the wrongheaded belief that debt, not joblessness, is our central challenge — and by GOP obstructionism that has paralyzed the capital.

Indeed, despite the stagnation, solutions to our problem abound.

With interest rates at a historic low, now is the time to invest in job creation and rebuild the country’s crumbling infrastructure. We could listen to 72 percent of the country and put unemployed Americans to work on government-funded projects to shore up aging bridges, roadways, and schools. President Obama and others have proposed a passel of infrastructure legislation that could put people back to work and transform our nation’s landscape.

They have also proposed major investments in education, especially in preschool, to prepare tomorrow’s workforce. Meanwhile, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who has been a fierce advocate of job creation, successfully included a provision in the Senate’s recently passed immigration bill to invest $1.5 billion in expanding job opportunities for young people.

Instead of giving tax breaks to companies that move their assets and jobs to distant shores, we should offer tax incentives to companies that create jobs at home.

We could and should tie executive pay to average employee pay in a company, expand the earned income tax credit and raise the threshold for paying payroll taxes. And as Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) has noted, in the wealthiest nation in the world, “the people with so much of the wealth bought lobbyists and influence to get loopholes for themselves so that they would not have to pay for the civilization that is America.” That’s why he introduced a bill to create a financial transaction tax, which would tax Wall Street to rebuild Main Street.

The Congressional Progressive Caucus has stitched together an array of strocng proposals in its Back to Work Budget, which ought to be a starting point for a serious jobs push by Congress.

There are plenty of good ideas, plenty of good bills and plenty of good legislators willing to fight on behalf of the millions of Americans who simply want a decent job. As Obama gears up to spend the summer focused on the economy, isn’t it time to summon the energy and the political will to solve the crisis before our eyes?

Read more from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s archive or follow her on Twitter.

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