Flagging Economy Needs Public Investment

By Charles Bell

As the American economy continues to struggle in the wake of the mortgage crisis, the recent economic stimulus package passed by Congress falls far short of what is really needed. Congress should be considering far bolder measures to create jobs and increase public investment in our neglected infrastructure and services, thereby creating the basis for future prosperity and a fair economy.  

Even when unemployment is relatively low, America has a huge chronic deficit of decent work. In 2006, 7 million people on average were officially unemployed at any given time. Another 4.2 million wanted full time work but were forced to work part-time. Millions more were working at wages that are grossly inadequate.

At the same time, the US faces a chronic deficit of investment in vital human and physical resources, including roads, bridges, dams, drinking water systems, schools, health and child and elder care.

The measures recently passed by the House of Representatives and Senate do virtually nothing to address these serious twin deficits of jobs and public infrastructure. In the short term, Congress must do more to directly assist unemployed and underemployed workers with unemployment compensation and food stamps, which are more likely to be spent immediately than tax rebates. It should also provide financial support for state and local government, whose tax receipts will decline precipitously with an economic downturn.

But looking down the road, the stimulus package enacted by Congress should ideally link short-term actions to stop the economic pain to long-term policies that will restore infrastructure and services, and create hundreds of thousands of living wage jobs.

Over the last year, the National Jobs for All Coalition reviewed pending legislation in Congress, and identified many good proposals to create literally millions of new good jobs in such fields as housing, energy, construction and human services. We recently published the results of our findings in a pamphlet called “Shared Prosperity and the Drive for Decent Work,” which is available at www.njfac.org/.

We urge Congress to increase federal funding for rebuilding the ailing US infrastructure, constructing affordable housing, and investing in clean energy and in essential public services. Such public investments would both create good jobs and improve the quality of life for all of us. 

Here’s a short outline of our proposed program:

First, Congress should expand federal investment in roads, bridges, dams, drinking water and sanitation systems, and schools. There are vast unmet needs in each area. Congress should hold hearings and enact an initial package as a first step in closing the gap in infrastructure investment. Accelerating targeted investments could quickly assist unemployed workers in particular sectors.

Second, Congress should expand affordable housing opportunities and boost residential construction by passing the National Affordable Housing Trust Fund Act in the Senate. 

Third, Congress should promote conservation, develop renewable energy, and expand funding for research toward greater efficiency and new energy sources. As proposed by the Center for American Progress, such initiatives could include increasing weatherization assistance, extending and increasing tax credits for energy efficiency and social energy, expanding funds for worker training for Green Jobs, and employing youth to assist with conservation programs.

Fourth, Congress should increase federal funding for critically needed community services such as Head Start, the Child Care and Development Block Grant, after school programs, and grants for library construction and modernization. Such investments will create jobs, improve educational opportunities for youth, and greatly enhance the quality of life in local communities.

While some people will likely worry that the US can’t afford a program like the one we’ve described, we wonder how we can afford NOT to do it. In fact, public job creation turns out to be much less expensive than many people think, because it boosts worker spending power, and in turn creates many additional jobs and tax revenues. To monitor the economic benefits and expenses of public job creation, we’re calling for establishment of a National Employment Accounting Office that would track the overall benefits of the jobs that are created, including the many economic benefits for users of infrastructure and public services.

In the long run, the federal and state governments would also save the many costs involved in maintaining a partly-idle and underemployed workforce, and the many social problems caused by joblessness. For example, as a society, we are currently spending much more to incarcerate adults in prison than we do to create jobs for unemployed youth. Many of our current social problems would be far easier to solve if we provided decent, living-wage jobs for everyone who wants to work.

We recognize that this is an ambitious program in the current political environment, but it is also one that can fire the public imagination. With levees failing in New Orleans and bridges collapsing in Minnesota, this is an excellent time for a public debate about smart strategies to address our nation’s unmet needs for public investment and good jobs. Let’s encourage Congress and the next president to think big about restoring America’s economic vitality and shared prosperity for all.

Charles Bell is vice president of the National Jobs for All Coalition, a national network of organizations and individuals working to build a new movement for full employment at livable wages. See www.njfac.org 

From The Progressive Populist, March 1, 2008

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