President Obama’s jobs speech before Congress last night struck an uncomfortable balance between the art of the possible and the sophistry of defeatism.
The speech did offer some serious ideas about reinvigorating the stagnant economy. But for all the talking points — from infrastructure investment to initiatives to promote hiring of veterans and the long-term unemployed — his eloquent words sidestepped the ideological barriers imposed by Washington’s reactionary ideologues. Meanwhile, the groups suffering the worst of the economic crisis — the poor, people of color, single women — may be hurt more by his careful omissions than they’d be helped by his proposals.
First, it’s far from clear whether the initiatives laid out in the speech, particularly the tax-cutting provisions, would make a significant dent in unemployment. The Progressive’s Matthew Rothschild points out that the structure of Obama’s highlighted payroll tax cut could be considered “regressive,” in that the bonus will be weighted toward the pockets of higher income-earners rather than the working poor.
More broadly, the pitch for cautiously modest, though earnest, stimulus measures seemed designed to ease the path toward more deficit slashing and cutbacks on social programs in the long run. The subtext appears to be a drive toward austerity and “entitlement reform” — pivoting toward conservatives who routinely demonize “nanny state” institutions like Social Security and Medicare. So despite rhetoric that pundits praised as “Trumanesque” and “fiery,” celebrating historic public works and exhorting Congress to cooperate for once, the speech was silent on the institutional pillars that should buttress any job creation plan.
Since the proposed new spending, while perhaps significant, wouldn’t offset the crippling damage to the workforce over the past few years, there will still be millions mired in hard times. And these folks will need the economic and social stability that is most efficiently delivered by comprehensive programs that support child care for working parents, health coverage for struggling families, and broad unemployment benefits – ideas that tend to be attacked or ignored in Washington.
Another overlooked factor in the jobs formula are critical regulations that protect the most vulnerable workers and communities. Conservative attacks on “job-crushing” regulations (e.g. rules that curb smokestacks that belch toxins into the air or help prevent coal mine explosions) have pushed Obama toward an anti-regulatory stance. He did, however, say in his speech that he “reject[s] the idea that we need to ask people to choose between their jobs and their safety” — an invitation for progressives to hold him to his word.
Obama’s greatest error of omission is actually society’s error of commission — the silence surrounding the racial and gender demographics of the economic devastation. Colorlines.com’s graphic depiction of the unemployment crisis displays how unevenly the jobs crisis has fallen on blacks and Latinos.
The Institute for Women’s Policy Research reports that the “recovery” continues to exacerbate economic gender gaps, with women steadily trailing men’s job gains:
If we count all the job losses from the prior seven months, dating back to May of 2007, when men’s job losses actually began, then men have regained 27.2 percent of the total 6.2 million jobs they lost. Men are recovering at about three times the speed of women, but the jobs recovery is slow for both men and women. Since October of 2009 when men’s and women’s total jobs numbers were virtually equal, women have failed to gain any jobs, whereas men have gained 1.6 million. The gap between women’s and men’s employment in August is currently 1.6 million.
The gap may be due to structural biases — such as women’s concentration in the hard-hit public sector — or outright discrimination in hiring. Either way, Obama’s infrastructure investment plan, with its focus on construction-related industries, seems well-poised to maintain this status quo and could leave women even further behind. The IWPR suggests measures to build equity into a recovery program, such as emphasizing Equal Opportunity guidelines in hiring, offering tax incentives to employers that promote more generous, family-friendly paid leave and benefit policies, and focusing on job fields that women tend to dominate (particularly in the public sector), such as education, human services and health care.
But none of those ideas is likely to factor heavily in the campaign-trail talking points as the administration tries to charm conservatives bent on wiping out social welfare. Between the hopeful lines of Obama’s speech was a message of resignation: equity is a luxury in a time of austerity.
Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the “Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.