Re-Invigorating America's Greatness Through National Employment Policy

Courtesy of Glyn Lowe

At his recent State of the Union address, President Obama issued a timely challenge to U.S. corporate leaders: partner with the administration voluntarily to absorb more workers needing employment -- and especially the long-term unemployed and young people of color -- to help ease the nation's protracted downturn.

There can be no doubt that, in our current situation, any and all voluntary employer efforts to test and scale promising strategies to engage hard-to-place workers are good.

According to a new Congressional caucus on full employment, fully 25 percent of the American workforce is presently unemployed or underemployed.

For people of color, unemployment rates are especially disturbing. According to a recent PBS NewsHour report, nearly six percent of white Americans are presently unemployed. But the unemployment rate for African Americans is twice as high, at just over 12 percent.

The data are even more disturbing for young workers. Some 38 percent of young African American workers are unemployed, for example, compared to just over 17 percent of young white workers.

Indeed, public-private partnerships that produce good jobs and earnings for the nation's hardest to employ can only be good for our economy and society. But, beyond the individuated, private steps employers may be able to mount in this direction, something fundamentally disturbing and self-defeating is lurking.

The fact remains that both the president and the nation are presently being held hostage by a Congress that fundamentally refuses to acknowledge the need for new public investment in good, decent-paid jobs for able and ready Americans who simply lack the opportunity to work.

Experts agree that our infrastructure is crumbling as a result of decades-long neglect. Thousands of bridges, highways, schools and other public structures essential to our future commercial and cultural success are simply being left to rot. As a result good jobs, increased earnings and stronger consuming power are being left on the table.

One of the ironies of our present predicament is that our economy is actually beginning to produce many new jobs in higher technology and skill categories that our workforce is simply not being sufficiently prepared for. In California, it is estimated an additional 2 million college degrees and certificates will be required to keep pace with projected job and skill level requirements in coming years.

Late last year, in conjunction with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, leading economic policy experts Jared Bernstein, former chief economic advisor to Vice President Biden, and Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research issued an important new report called, "Getting Back to Full Employment: A Better Bargain for Working People." The report reminds us that full employment has long been a stated goal of the Federal Reserve Bank and other national economic policy institutions. It also suggests that a more aggressive push to achieve full employment in America would produce manifold benefits for the nation's short term recovery and longer term global competitiveness.

Through a proposed combination of immediate infrastructure investments, job expansions and work sharing arrangements, coupled with longer term investments in education and workforce development, Bernstein and Baker argue that America need not resign itself to present labor market conditions becoming our norm.

As Bernstein and Baker put it, "full employment is not only good social policy; it is smart fiscal policy... When the economy is at full employment, higher wages and incomes and the diminished need for public assistance and unemployment benefits lead to more robust revenue flows and lower deficits."

We are also likely to be a more equitable and harmonious society going forward to the extent that we more inclusively factor in training and employment benefits for our growing population of young people of color, upon whom so much of our future quality of life and global competitiveness depends.

Bernstein's and Baker's new report reminds us that the argument for full employment is "obvious, noncontroversial, and even nonpartisan." In fact, our political history reveals as much.

In the 1950s, Republican Dwight Eisenhower led the charge to strengthen our national economy and labor force through major investments in the Interstate Highway System.

Later, in the early 1970s, Republican Richard Nixon followed in Eisenhower's path and that of his Democratic predecessors in the White House to support his own significant public investments in national manpower training programs and major jobs drivers like the NASA space program.

America is still benefiting from those important public investments and will do so again through similar investments in our future.

It is time to re-invigorate America's greatness with new efforts in national employment policy that complement and extend private initiatives. Advancing this work is neither the Democrat nor the Republican thing to do; rather, it is the smart and the American thing to do.

Henry A. J. Ramos is CEO of the Insight Center for Community Economic Development and an appointed member of the California Community Colleges Board of Governors.