Congressman Elijah Cummings

As Washington prepares for a Republican-controlled Congress, I, like most Americans, have concluded that expanding our economy must remain our top domestic priority.

Acknowledging the importance of more broadly shared economic growth will enhance, not diminish, our ability to achieve other national objectives in the areas of education, healthcare, housing, the environment and federal budgetary discipline.

This is not an ideological statement.  Rather, as former President Clinton has pointed out, it is basic math.  Nations can only achieve the goals that they can afford.

That is why the new Congress must focus its primary attention upon the ways in which our economy is working – and not working – for the American people.  Consider, for example, the national employment numbers for September.

There was some good news.  Our economy added 214,000 jobs in September, the ninth month in a row with greater than 200,000 new jobs.  The national unemployment rate fell to 5.8 percent, compared to 7.2 percent a year ago.

This continued economic progress reflects well upon President Obama’s economic leadership. Our private sector has now created 10.6 million new jobs over the last 56 months – and our nation is steadily climbing back from the worst economic crisis of our lifetime.

Yet, these abstract economic statistics also reflect some intensely human and deeply troubling struggles as well.  Far too many American families are being left behind in our modestly resurgent economy.

Our current economic challenges go beyond unemployment.  Jobs are coming back, but living wages are not.  Millions of Americans are suffering in what economist and former Labor Secretary Dr. Robert Reich has accurately called a “wageless recovery.”

As a result, in an American economy that is largely dependent upon consumer spending, far too many Americans have far too little money to spend.  For the affluent and less affluent as well, widespread suffering and anxiety continue to stifle our overall economic growth.

It is clear that the pain is especially intense for Americans of Color.

Our unemployment rate remains twice that of Caucasians; and too many of the new jobs replacing those that have been lost are part-time, lower-wage positions without benefits.  The Bush Recession devastated the equity in our homes; a shocking number of Black businesses are struggling; and the jobless rate for our young people remains mired at crisis proportions.

Yet, we also know that we are not alone in our suffering.  Indeed, most Americans who are being left behind in the current economic order are not people of color – they are White.

In our shared economic struggles rests the foundation for an emerging, multi-racial coalition that can achieve real economic change.

The progressive, multi-racial and ecumenical coalition that elected President Obama in 2008 and 2012 has not vanished.  That experience taught us that, with an effective strategy and the right candidate for office, we have the ability to win national elections.

Even our electoral defeats in 2010 and this year have reminded us of an important truth.  Although Americans of every racial heritage are suffering from the inequitable economic policies of our time, far too many White, working class Americans are not voting in their own economic self-interest.

They are correct that their tax burden is too high.  Yet, their more fundamental problem is that their incomes and family wealth are too low.

Our nation’s working class families may have come to this country in different boats, but we all are in the same boat now.  In this truth is the basis for a strengthened, multiracial coalition for political and economic change.

I am proud to work in the Congress with leaders like Senators Barbara Mikulski, Ben Cardin and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts who understand what needs to be done to expand economic opportunity for America’s working families and are willing to fight for those goals.

As Sen. Warren recently observed in her Nov. 7 Washington Post article:  “The American people want a fighting chance to build better lives for their families. They want a government that will stand up to the big banks when they break the law; a government that helps out students who are getting crushed by debt; a government that will protect and expand Social Security for our seniors and raise the minimum wage.”

There is wisdom in Sen. Warren’s “American Agenda.”

As my departed colleague, friend and teacher, Sen. Paul Wellstone, often observed, “People yearn for a politics of the center. Not ‘the center’ so widely discussed by … pundits, but, rather, a politics that speaks to the center of people’s lives.”

For the American families of every racial background who are struggling and fearful about our future, our shared priority of a more inclusive, sustainable and equitable economy is the most pressing challenge of our time.

It also is the blueprint for our progressive coalition’s future political success.

Congressman Elijah Cummings represents Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.