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Let them eat fiscal responsibility

July 29, 2010

July 28, 2010

WORKERS IN the U.S. are still getting hammered by the worst economic slump since the Great Depression. That’s something people in every state of the country understand all too well.

“It’s not like a hurricane loss or a drought or something that’s typically referred to as an ‘act of God’ outside the control of the government,” said Nebraska Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson. Nelson was explaining why he voted alongside Republicans to try to block an extension of unemployment benefits.

That extension finally did pass in mid-July, in spite of Nelson and the Republicans–seven weeks after the extra jobless benefits expired, cutting off a total of 2.5 million people who have been without work for longer than the standard 26 weeks for unemployment insurance.

The cost of the legislation is $34 billion–a little over half the amount that the Senate approved for a war spending bill a few weeks earlier. Nevertheless, Republicans and some Democrats fought the unemployment extension at every turn–in the name of “fiscal responsibility.”

“Americans are frustrated with the amount of spending and borrowing around here,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). “Let’s not wave on through legislation that is going to worsen the deficit and dig an even deeper hole than we’re in.”

For millions of workers and their families, though, the “hole we’re in” is how to pay the bills when there’s no work to be found–and the extension of jobless benefits that average just over $300 a week is little enough help as it is.

Actually, the bill to extend unemployment was even less help after Senate Democrats got done bargaining away several important provisions. For example, they dropped badly needed funding for state Medicaid programs–a compromise that will force state governments into more cuts from health care and other spending. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities warned that dropping the extra Medicaid funding could ultimately lead to the loss of 900,000 public- and private-sector jobs.

The Democrats also sweetened the deal for Republicans by agreeing to cut a $25-a-week increase in benefits allocated in previous bills extending unemployment.

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SOME 15 million people are unemployed, according to official figures, and at least that many are involuntarily working part time because they can’t find full-time work, or have dropped out of the workforce altogether in despair at ever finding a job.

So why are the politicians so slow to act? Public opinion isn’t stopping them. A recentUSA Today/Gallup poll reported that 60 percent of people support “additional government spending to create jobs and stimulate the economy.” A National Employment Law Project survey found that 74 percent agreed with the statement, “With unemployment close to 10 percent and millions still out of work, it is too early to start cutting back benefits and health coverage for workers who lost their jobs.”

Yes, Republicans have continued to pursue their strategy of obstructing every Democratic initiative. But the problem in Washington isn’t just the intransigence of the GOP, but the commitment of the Obama administration and the leadership of the Democratic Party to many of the same neoliberal dogmas and policies of the past.

Obama and the Democrats passed one big economic stimulus package in their first months in power in 2009–not as large or as directed at creating jobs as many supporters had hoped, but nevertheless the biggest such measure since the Great Depression.

But since then, the talk has turned steadily to austerity, austerity and more austerity. Obama himself promised a spending freeze at most government agencies–not the Pentagon, of course–for the next three years, and in June, White House budget officials ordered departments to cut 5 percent from their budgets.

Democrats in Congress let several proposals–a summer job program for teenagers, aid to states to prevent layoffs of teachers, expansion of funding for Pell Grants–die on the vine at the first whiff of Republican opposition.

With even mainstream economists warning of the threat of a double-dip recession, the Obama administration–like governments around the advanced world–is carrying out policies that are the exact opposite of what’s needed. As it is, the effects of last year’s federal stimulus were drastically undercut by the scale of spending cuts at the state and local level.

If the Democrats were serious about their ritual talk of creating jobs, millions of people could be put to work rebuilding the country’s crumbling infrastructure–roads, bridges, transit systems and schools. Those jobs would be certain to pay a living wage if the minimum wage was raised to keep up with years of inflation–and millions of the working poor could be helped as well.

Rather than bailouts for bankers and more tax breaks for corporations, the government could reverse the cuts in programs that poor and working people depend on. And while we’re at it, let’s talk about strengthening, not slashing, Social Security to make up for the massive decline in pensions that workers used to receive–and in retirement savings that vanished during the financial crisis of 2008-09.

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UNFORTUNATELY, THE labor movement and liberal organizations have put up very little opposition to the Obama administration’s many disappointments. But
one positive sign for putting forward an alternative agenda is the plans for an October 2 national march in Washington, D.C.

The AFL-CIO has joined with the NAACP, 1199 SEIU, National Council of La Raza and many other organizations for a demonstration to demand “jobs, economic security, comprehensive immigration reform, a safe and renewable energy policy and a reversal of national priorities from making wars to meeting human needs.” George Gresham, president of 1199 SEIU, called the planned rally a “massive–and we believe historic–march.”

At the group’s convention in early July, NAACP President Ben Jealous announced that the purpose of the march on Washington was to show “that the majority of this nation is ready and willing to fight back and ensure that all of the change we voted for is a reality for all of our children.”

In addition, the United Auto Workers and Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH are uniting for a campaign for jobs that will be kicked off at a march on August 28 in Detroit, on the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. Detroit was the site of the “Freedom Walk,” a march of 125,000 that King led several months before the March on Washington.

The Detroit event will call for an end to the ongoing U.S. wars in the Middle East and redirect the war budget to rebuilding in the U.S. Organizers say the campaign will focus on foreclosures and call for a moratorium on “the practice that forces hard-working Americans from their homes while at the same time bailing out Wall Street executives and paying them million-dollar bonuses.”

History tells us that the most important social changes–reforms that improved the lives of working people and expanded democracy and freedom–didn’t come about because of proposals in Washington, but because working people organized and struggled for them.

The spirit of solidarity that we build today–in our unions, workplaces, schools and communities, in movements to save our schools in California or stop foreclosures in Boston–will be the basis for a real fight for jobs, and ultimately for real economic justice.


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