By Benjamin Todd Jealous and the Rev. Wendell Anthony
The Detroit News
Jobless residents throughout Detroit are victims of a man-made disaster that is devastating communities across the country. And when life gets tough for America, the pain for black Americans is exponentially worse.
Today, the unemployment rate for African-Americans is 15.8 percent, nearly double the national average. Detroit’s unemployment rate is just under 30 percent, disproportionately African-American men. The mayor and local leaders say their figures show the actual jobless rate to be closer to 50 percent.
That’s no longer a recession, it’s a depression.
It would be considered a vast improvement if the unemployment rate for the black community could be cut to 10 percent, the high for the nation. How do we make sense of policies that helped lower the unemployment rate for the general population, while unemployment increased for people of color?
The personal toll of joblessness is overwhelming. What happens to families when their unemployment compensation checks start to run out? How do parents feed their children and pay medical bills as they lose their health insurance? Families are slipping into homelessness, and the impact of this disaster is shattering lives from Detroit to Los Angeles.
What happened wasn’t an earthquake. The causes of joblessness are man-made. We are the victims of the housing bust and the criminal irresponsibility among major financial institutions. It is time to throw a lifeline to the millions of suffering families on Main Street and Back Street. A man-made disaster must be addressed by man-made solutions.
President Obama has begun to take action on the jobs front. Early in his administration, he took steps to avert a full depression by stabilizing major financial institutions. He saved hundreds of thousands of jobs by preventing American auto companies from going out of business and the stimulus bill created or saved 2 million jobs — many of those were teachers, firemen and police officers that local municipalities didn’t have to lay off.
But it is still a depression in far too many Detroit neighborhoods. We have to act quickly:
• Federal stimulus job openings must be more transparent. Simply put, an unemployed mother can not apply for a job if she doesn’t know it exists. The simple act of posting these job listings at the close to 3,000 CareerOne stops around the country, on the Internet and in underserved communities would allow those most affected by the economic crisis to compete for employment. This quick fix, which requires no money and could be done by executive order, could open up at least 5 million jobs.
• The federal government must extend direct financial support to states, counties, cities, universities, community colleges and community-based nonprofit organizations to provide jobs, especially in public services — education, health care, childcare and transportation. A $150 billion investment from remaining stimulus funds could generate 3 million jobs.
• The government can create Green Empowerment Zones in cities where at least 50 percent of the population is unemployed at a rate that’s higher than the state average. Manufacturers of solar panels and wind turbines that agree to hire half their work force from these areas would be eligible for zero federal income tax and zero capital gains tax for three years.
• Youth summer jobs program should it be expanded by investing up to $7 billion to hire 5 million teenagers.
The goal of the civil rights movement is the goal of a fair recovery for all.
Unemployment for youth and older white men is over 15 percent. There is strong common ground between all Americans. We all want jobs, good health care and good schools. What is different is what is needed in each community to reach these goals. It is not because people are Black or Latino; it is because they are situated differently in relationship to structures of opportunities that these communities face unique barriers.
President Obama is uniquely positioned to fix the urban joblessness crisis. No other president has possessed a better understanding of the concerns of people of color. However, he is not Moses who can part the waters of our economic decline and miraculously lead us to a new day of full employment. Right now we face a Congress where one side has been saying “no, no, no” to health care, to a meaningful jobs bill and to financial regulatory reform.
Critiques of the administration have been raised over the economic flood. But like every great wave, the one that brought President Obama to Washington must be regenerated or it ebbs. In too many instances, we have powered down, left the field for the bleachers, and chosen to play armchair pundit rather than continue leading. We must all get back into the game.
Real change emerges from the collective power of a robust and inspired movement. We must begin to fight at scale again. Only our collective voices raised in unison will compel Washington to act decisively on behalf of the Main Streets and Back Streets of America where millions of people are struggling to survive every day.
Benjamin Todd Jealous is president and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The Rev. Wendell Anthony is president of the Detroit Branch of the NAACP.