After Sept. 11, 2001, in which Americans of every kind (and foreign nationals, too) were indiscriminately targeted for murder, Americans of every kind responded with heroism and compassion and a determination to put forward the best values of America. It was as if, the tragedies having shown that we Americans are all equally American in the eyes of those who hate America, Americans themselves had determined to show what that meant in the most positive terms. It was evident, they said, that one of the ways the federal government could help this effort was to do as much as possible to alleviate the economic pain that the recession – exacerbated by the shock of Sept. 11 – was spreading among middle-class, blue-collar and poor Americans.
Today, however, the plight of the poor and jobless continues to worsen. Job cuts in the private sector continue with a dispiriting frequency, and the number of jobless who’ve been out of work longer than 15 weeks has reached record levels – it’s now close to three million people. By year’s end hundreds of thousands of the jobless will exhaust their regular or extended unemployment benefits.
Perhaps most alarmingly, state and municipal budgets are being severely squeezed, as their governments try to pare expenses to match sharply reduced revenues. Not surprisingly, the cutting that officials are compelled to do is falling most heavily on those who most need help. It doesn’t do any good to note that the general unemployment rate declined in September to 5.6 percent, and that the nation is officially out of the recession (the economy is experiencing a very modest growth). The public clearly feels a sense of economic malaise that is widespread. That’s because the job cuts have stung white-collar as well as blue-collar workers, college graduates as well as high school dropouts, and, in proportional terms, almost as many whites as African Americans and Hispanic Americans.
A recent New York Times/CBS News poll found that two-thirds of those surveyed said the economy was weak, up from a little more than one-third in June. Forty-six percent said the economy would likely stay the same for the immediate future, but 39 percent felt it would get worse.
Yet, even as real economic misery and pessimism increase, the federal government – both the Bush administration and the Congress – seems to be missing in action. Where are the words and actions of the Secretary of the Treasury, the Secretary of Commerce, the president’s economic advisers, and the president himself? Congress has effectively adjourned for the November elections. It could have – but did not – increase the minimum wage to enable the working poor to preserve their purchasing power, which has always been a bulwark of the economy. A new study by the National Urban League Institute for Opportunity and Equality found that raising the federal minimum wage from its current $5.15 an hour to $6.65 per hour would enable 1.4 million more low-income workers to earn enough to provide nutritious meals for their families.
Before taking off for electioneering, the House Ways and Means Committee sent to the floor legislation to provide tax relief to those investors who lost money in the stock market this year – but it couldn’t find the economically justifiable compassion to extend unemployment insurance beyond Dec. 31, as was done in the recessions of both 1980 and 1990.
Speaking to The New York Times about the need for federal help to ease the Medicaid situation in his state, Mike Fogarty, chief executive officer of the Oklahoma Health Care Authority, said, “Many of us are dealing with the crisis. We are hopeful there will be a crisis response.” That’s what’s needed to combat the economic storm bedeviling ordinary Americans.
Are the Bush administration and the Republican, Democratic and Independent members of Congress listening? After all, we are all equally American – aren’t we?
Hugh B. Price is president of the National Urban League.