- Racial Equity
- Talk About Race
The Root reports that President Obama recently met with leaders of major black civil rights organizations to discuss the deep unemployment crisis in the African-American community, where unemployment is around 17% and underemployment can safely be assumed to be much higher. (As a sidenote, other than Dorothy Height, were there no other Black women leaders for him to meet with? That’s a story for another blog. I’ll write that soon.) The leaders came away with a sense that Obama “feels our pain,” much as another Democratic President did, but that he would not, in their words, “engage in any race-based programs.”
Color me unsurprised. Obama has consistently stated that he believes a universal approach to economic policy will disproportionately help those in greatest need — the “rising tide lifts all boats” approach that he and other liberals believe has a race-neutral face but racialized benefits. However, even by that standard, Obama has not taken aggressive action to reduce unemployment. Thus, to some degree, I think those leaders miss the point, because Obama’s lack of action on jobs for low-skilled, urban Blacks is merely a subset of his lack of action on the jobs front in general. In part, this lack of action is due to the paralysis of Congressional action, especially in the Senate; but in part, it’s also due to choices that Obama himself has made.
Let’s start with the Federal Reserve. It’s not very well understood, but the Federal Reserve has a dual mandate: to promote price stability (to keep inflation low) and full employment (to keep unemployment low). The recently re-confirmed Federal Reserve Chair, Ben Bernanke, like other major central bankers, has concerned himself almost SOLELY with preventing non-existent inflation, while acting as if nothing can be done about high unemployment. And it’s not as if Bernanke has no idea how a central bank could promote employment — he had this to say about how the Bank of Japan could respond to a recession similar to ours in the 1990s. Yet when directly asked why the Fed isn’t pursuing such a path, he said that it would probably work, but that he thought it would undermine the Fed’s reputation for fighting (again, non-existent) inflation.
Now, that’s his prerogative, and it’s not unexpected, coming from a conservative Republican who chaired George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers. Yet it’s baffling why a Democratic President in a deep recession would choose to re-appoint someone who has basically said that he thinks it’s more important to guard against possible inflation some time in the future than to fight unemployment that is doing lasting economic damage right now.
A second obvious point where Obama didn’t aggressively press against unemployment was, of course, the stimulus. One of his economic advisers, Christina Romer, suggested that it needed to be as much as $1.2 trillion at a time when forecasts expected unemployment to peak just above nine percent. Instead, Obama pushed for a stimulus that was 25% smaller, and found the country stuck in a much deeper economic hole.
Obama’s aversion to the “T” word (seen in the health care debate as well) meant insufficient aid to states and cities and insufficient money for infrastructure projects and other things that could rapidly create jobs. This is not to say that the ARRA has not had a positive effect — but 600,000 to 1.6 million jobs “created or saved” in a climate where 8.5 million jobs have been lost is a drop in the bucket, and it’s a direct result of Obama not bidding higher from jump so that he could end up at a higher impact for his administration’s signature legislation thus far.
Finally, Obama could (have) push(ed) for a public works bill that would directly create jobs for struggling Americans. However, in this case he runs up against conservative Democrats in the Senate who are wary of so-called “big government” and a leadership squeamish about pushing such legislation through reconciliation (that is, a simple majority vote). Thus, even if Obama were inclined to push for such an effort — which I’m going to stay agnostic about — it would be a very hard sell in the Senate, possibly undoable. Instead what we’re seeing come out of Congress is a rather small “jobs bill” and an aggressive attempt to sell it as addressing this huge issue.
So in my estimation, we have an administration that has pulled its punches on job creation at every turn, despite economic forecasts that say unemployment will still be above 8% in 2012, and now proudly trumpets a report that the economy will create a meager 95,000 jobs a month this year. Without a strong effort to address the unemployment crisis in general, there is no political space for targeted job creation efforts. Therefore it should be no surprise that black leaders came away from their meeting with the President empty-handed.