While a Department of Education program embraces “a race to the top,” our nation’s current stance toward our 14 million officially unemployed people represents nothing less than a race to the bottom. We are content to report, month after month, unemployment rates in excess of 9 percent, to use questionable language to describe tepid performance, and to assuage ourselves with myths that the economy is in recovery because GDP growth is up. Imagine that one of our children came home from school with a report card that showed a drop from a C- to a D, and she reported her grades as “substantially unchanged.” She would, substantially, find her allowance cut, her study hours increased, her privileges restricted. But when high unemployment continues month after month, an unsatisfactory outcome in and of itself, we hear nonsense and platitudes.
Fourteen million people are just the tip of the iceberg. When we look at those who are discouraged, dropped out of the labor market, and all of that, we are looking at something closer to 20 million people. Among African Americans we are looking at more than one in four without work, and in inner cities, we are looking at nearly one in two men who do not work. Employers won’t create jobs, government won’t create jobs, and rhetoric won’t put people back to work.
Then, what are we to do? If traditional job creation will not fill the void, we must consider the possibility of encouraging entrepreneurship so that people can be trained to create jobs for themselves. Enslaved people were some of our nation’s original entrepreneurs. What kind of job creation ability did it take for some of us to purchase ourselves? Throughout our history, there are people who never joined the Fortune 500, but who created jobs and opportunities for themselves and for others through entrepreneurship.
Elizabeth Keckley, the seamstress who bought her freedom and worked for Mary Todd Lincoln, and others in Washington, is an example of the kind of entrepreneurial ability so many of the formerly enslaved exhibited. Thomas Day built a furniture manufacturing company in North Carolina in 1837. Elijah McCoy, “the real McCoy” invented the lubricating cup that became an essential part of locomotive manufacturing in 1872, and made millions from that invention. AG Gaston was an entrepreneur with interests in insurance, funeral homes, broadcasting, public relations, banking and the hospitality industry. And the list goes on. All these folk are African American, many are little know, and each of them is a story of inspiration for someone who is out of work.
Entrepreneurship will not replace traditional employment; indeed, entrepreneurs create employment opportunities for those who do not have them. Even as this administration grapples with our tepid economy, it seems that there ought to be some conversation about encouraging entrepreneurs to create value in an economy that seems to devalue the lives, and efforts of at least 20 million of our citizens, those who want to work but can find nothing. It is interesting that some banks were described as “too big to fail” but we have easily tolerated failure in the labor market. In other words, our government was prepared to protect stockholders and bond markets, but not to protect people. The message is that if you are a banker, government will manage your risk so thoroughly that you can jump on your high horse and talk about deficit reduction just a few minutes after you have been bailed out. On the other hand, if you hold a mortgage or a job, you might as well line up for a beat-down because you are not too big to fail, indeed, you are too small to pay attention to.
Our economy is racing to the bottom because we have failed to pay attention to the details, to the small stuff, to the individuals who are being ground down and spit out by this economy. But the very folks who have been marginalized have to be the ones who will rise up and make a difference in our nation’s direction. Just as there are those who formed a tea party, what would happen if the galvanized marginalized formed the Unemployed Party, the Worker’s Party or the Economic Justice Party. Then the race to the bottom might turn into an explosion at the top. Or, next month and the month after and the month after, we will continue to read tepid reports about the labor market, and continue to wring our hands about the injustice of it all.
Julianne Malveaux is president of Bennett College for Women. Her book, “Surviving and Thriving: 365 Facts in Black Economic History,” is available at www.lastwordprod.com.