Is Growth Without Full Employment Real Progress?


It is time for the Congress to take action that addresses the linkage between unacceptable levels of unemployment and our federal budgetary policy.

As I had hoped, my 16th Annual Job Fair last month was a tangible success for many of the 3,500 job-seekers, more than 60 employers and 40 workforce investment experts who participated. I only wish that some of my Republican House colleagues could have attended.

I will not criticize them for failing to make the drive from Washington to Baltimore. What I do question, however, is their failure to actively participate in our Joint Economic Committee’s April 24th hearing on solutions to this nation’s long-term unemployment.

Our committee’s Democratic Staff has confirmed that “nearly 40 percent of America’s 12 million unemployed workers have been out of work for more than six months . . . 25 percent of them for more than a year.”

Helping the 4.4 million Americans who have been seeking work for more than six months find good jobs is a crucial national objective. We must unravel the economic knot that has kept unemployment too high, even as the private sector has added 6.5 million new jobs over the past three years.

I am encouraged that Black and Hispanic Americans, among the hardest hit by the Bush Recession, are making modest progress in returning to our labor force – and I believe that grassroots efforts like my annual job fair are helping.

Nevertheless, my Republican colleagues’ apparent disinterest in policies that could address our structural unemployment challenges ignores the harsh reality that many American communities, especially communities of color, are mired in depression-like valleys of despair.

Democrats and Republicans alike should enthusiastically endorse the practical, bipartisan initiatives advanced by my colleague, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, vice chair of our Joint Economic Committee.

Here is why.

We know that those lacking the education and skills that are central to our 21st Century economy are among the most likely to be excluded from good jobs that pay a living wage. Yet, without sufficient encouragement, our private sector has been less than enthusiastic about providing that training “on-the-job.”

We also know that when our government and educational sectors support skills training and continuing education, our unemployed neighbors gain the ability to qualify for better jobs.

All of us gain as a result.

The expert witnesses at our April Joint Economic Committee hearing were clear in their recommendations for bipartisan action.

First, Congress should expand our support for smart, cost-effective public investments in workforce training, especially those programs that target the expanding sectors of our economy.

Second, we should better focus our job search initiatives so that they more accurately target job opportunities aligned with unemployed workers’ skills.

Finally, we also should do all that we can to strengthen our community colleges’ training partnerships with the private sector.

To be fair, many of my Republican colleagues see the wisdom in these three recommendations. Yet, they fail to give them the priority that they warrant.

Concerned about our federal budget deficits, many are reluctant to spend the money – and that, in my view, is a fundamental mistake.

My parents’ generation – the men and women who survived and brought America back from the Great Depression of the 1930s – had an insight that applies to our failure to adequately support workforce investment today. They advised us to avoid being penny wise and pound foolish.

Their wisdom accurately describes our failure to make the necessary investments in our workforce. As a direct result of our failure, we reduce economic growth in the short term and run the risk of budget deficits for decades to come.

I suspect that too many Tea Party Republicans have come to believe their own political metaphor linking our budget debates to a family’s kitchen table spending decisions.

Although that homespun image is politically powerful, it is not accurate.

As Princeton’s Nobel Prize winning economist, Paul Krugman, recently observed: “The economy is not like an individual family . . . . In the economy as a whole, my spending is your income, and your spending is my income.”

If we are serious about both stimulating growth and reducing unemployment, Dr. Krugman continues, “now is the time for above-normal government spending to sustain the economy until the private economy is willing to spend again.”

Expanded federal spending – if applied wisely to job creation and training – will lead to longer-term prosperity and more balanced federal books.

While our overall economy is slowly recovering and is no longer in recession, far too many Americans continue to face a depression.

Growth without full employment is not the progress that we need.

We should be investing in economic progress that includes America’s abandoned working families. They, in turn, will gain the skills and jobs that will allow them to repay our nation with interest.

That would be real progress indeed.

Congressman Elijah Cummings represents Maryland's 7th Congressional Districtin the United States House of Representatives. 

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