Let Our Voices Ring
On the day the “jobs summit” convened in Washington, I was in Toledo, Ohio and Detroit, Michigan. The Washington confab considered many ideas for jobs creation, but served mainly to put jobs back on the national agenda. On Saturday, the president pledged to “focus every single day on how we can get people back to work.”
He might have begun by convening the summit in Toledo or Detroit, instead of inside the beltway. The world looks much different from here. Detroit is devastated, an economy that has descended from the big three auto makers that offered good jobs with good benefits, to one featuring casinos, the tawdry, neon glittered way to legally stiff the desperate. In Toledo, the shelters are full, often with nicely dressed families, working people stunned to find themselves there.
I met with high school students and urged them to study. One lad, a football star named Carlos, said, “I don’t study.” His teacher sadly confirmed that. I met with him separately. I asked if he was going to put a picture he had on the wall. “I don’t have walls,” he said, “we live in a shelter.” Where is it, I asked, I’d like to talk with your parents. “We aren’t in any one place,” he said, “we move from week to week, from place to place.” No home, no security, no hope. We need action now.
We lost more than eight million jobs, many of which aren’t coming back. According to the National Center on Homelessness and poverty, the number of homeless Americans is up by 61% since the Great Recession began in December 2007. The number of people in poverty increased by 2.5 million in 2008 and has continued to rise. Some 49 million Americans experience want the government calls “food insecurity,” otherwise known as hunger. More than 36 million now use food stamps, up by about 25% in the past year. And, given “welfare reform,” only about 5 million parents and children get any cash assistance. The working poor–particularly single mothers with children–are dropping into a hole with no floor to break their fall.
This reality is ruinous to the poor and to the country. People lose their jobs, and then default on their mortgages. As foreclosures keep rising, housing prices stagnate and decline. Neighborhoods are devastated. Local and state tax revenues plummet. Teachers and police are laid off. Businesses cut back. A vicious cycle continues.
Most of the deficit–as the president pointed out at the jobs summit–comes from the structural deficit inherited from Bush or the fall in revenue and rise in costs associated with the deep recession. The recovery plan added the least amount–and that is spread out over three years. Given the cuts in state and local spending, it was too small, not too large.
We need a bold program to create jobs, starting with direct public service employment, particularly of young men and women in our inner cities and rural areas. We need aid to states and localities to avoid deep cuts. We need to weatherize homes and rebuild parks and put people to work. We need both short-term and long-term commitments to rebuild America. Once the economy gets going and people go back to work, we can figure out how to reduce the deficit–much of which involves getting health care costs under control.
What we can’t do is allow poverty to spread, a generation to be lost. But at this point, the White House is said to be considering only small, “targeted,” programs that the Financial Times labels “thin stuff.”
That won’t do. Those hit the hardest by this crisis must organize. It is time for mass, disciplined collective action, for poor people’s campaigns to mobilize in cities across the country. Dr. King understood the importance of direct action. By acting collectively, the poor express their humanity. They create a forum to tell their stories. Collective action demonstrates not just their desperation but their discipline. It will mobilize allies. The poor do have power–but unlike the wealthy, to exercise it, they must act collectively, not individually; in the streets, not in the suites.
Today, the malnourished children, the homeless, those families forced from homes to shelters are largely hidden from sight. It is time to act, to come together and march together. Human lives are being crushed by this crisis. They need bold action now. People of conscience must join their call. We must act together to make their voices heard.