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Without Jobs, the Nation’s Future Circles the Drain

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After he was elected AFL-CIO president in September, Richard Trumka traveled around the country on a listening tour. Here’s one story he heard, which he described this week as the AFL-CIO, along with several key allies, launched a jobs initiative to help get our nation back to work.

Last summer at an event in Ohio, I met a young woman who is facing this crisis head-on. Lacey, who is not yet 20 years old, wants to become a teacher. But after her dad’s factory closed and he was laid off, she had to put off her hopes of attending college to help her parents keep a roof over their heads. Lacey took a job in a school cafeteria—until the state budget got cut, and she got laid off, too.

After months in which she and her father were both searching for jobs, Lacey said she felt lucky to find a part-time fast food job that pays half of what the cafeteria paid. Lacey has more unemployed friends than friends with jobs, and, like a third of workers her age, she’s still living with her parents. Here’s what Lacey said to me that day:

I wanted to be a teacher to help children get the education they need to get ahead. But now I feel like I’m just going backward myself. I’m really scared for the kids my age. We want to work. We need jobs.

For many Washington insiders, Lacey’s life is hard to fathom. They’re obsessed with the GDP and fixated on the budget deficit (as opposed to the trade deficit, which, if it were addressed, would improve the U.S. jobs situation). The fact that more than 26 million Americans are unemployed or underemployed just isn’t registering. And who in D.C. can grasp that there are just no jobs in this country—that, in fact, there is more than six workers for every one job?

Yet as we found in our recent survey of young people, “Young Workers: A Lost Decade,” the recession is flushing their earning power and their futures down the drain:

  • More than one in three young workers say they are currently living at home with their parents.
  • 31 percent of young workers reports being uninsured, up from 24 percent without health insurance coverage 10 years ago.
  • One-third of young workers cannot pay the bills and seven in 10 do not have enough saved to cover two months of living expenses.

Brad DeLong, an economist at the University of California-Berkeley, has described the debilitating effects of the oxymoronic “jobless recovery” on young people: Every 1 percent increase in unemployment results in the loss of 7 percent of income for young people entering the job market.

Overall, the long-term damage of an ongoing recession, says Economic Policy Institute (EPI) economist John Irons, seriously damages the chances unemployed workers will get jobs. Irons cites a study in which some 35 percent of jobless workers don’t have jobs two years later and 13 percent had only part-time jobs. Meanwhile, 13 percent of those who did find full-time work were paid less than at the job they lost.

David Dayen lists the five points in our jobs proposal here. We’re pushing it with our partners: the NAACP; National Council of La Raza (NCLR); Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR); and the Center for Community Change. Together, we’re trying to light a fire under lawmakers on Capitol Hill—who, if they don’t act fast, likely will get a close up and personal look at the unemployment line themselves. We plan to press the White House and Congress to act on these recommendations immediately, starting at President Barack Obama’s Dec. 3 Jobs Summit.

Speaking at yesterday’s event, LCCR President Wade Henderson said the nation’s jobs crisis requires urgent attention—because it’s not just an economic imperative to put people to work, it’s a moral responsibility:

Make no mistake, for us this is the civil rights issue of the moment. Unless we resolve the national job crisis, it will make it hard to address all of our other priorities.

The 2008 campaigns mobilized young people and turned them out to vote. Lawmakers have an obligation to ensure they—and our nation—have a future. As Trumka says:

We owe Lacey our support. We owe Lacey and millions like her a future to be hopeful about—not one to be feared. Lacey and her generation could find their future permanently stunted, their potential never fully met. That’s unacceptable. We can’t afford to let that happen.

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Tula Connell

Tula Connell