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Congress, president need to focus on unemployment

The worst thing about what is being called the Great Recession is not the impact on the economy, but on our people. Millions are out of work and looking for jobs. The national unemployment rate is reported at 9.7 percent, but the real rate (including unemployed workers who are not receiving unemployment benefits) is 16.7 percent -- or a little more than one in seven Americans. 

Here in Minnesota, the official unemployment rate in December of last year was 7.4 percent. But when you add in the jobless who've given up looking for work and part-time workers who can't find full-time positions -- the unemployed/underemployed rate in our state averaged 14.2 percent last year.

What is even more disconcerting is the number of folks who have been unemployed for a long time. What's a long time? How about 3 months? Nationally, more than 8.9 million workers have been unemployed for more than 15 weeks -- a historic number. Former Congressional Joint Economic Committee economist Paul Manchester has noted, "The speed and extent of the increase in unemployment in the current recession is unprecedented, at least since the Depression."

Now is the time for Congress and the President to focus like a laser on the crucial issue of unemployment. There is no silver bullet solution to solve the problem, but we believe a three-pronged approach is needed. 

First: a massive federally-funded jobs program, such as been advocated by representatives of working families like the AFL-CIO and Center for Community Change. The danger of a double-dip recession is not just a threat to the economy, but to the millions of folks who are already unemployed, as well as those still working but wondering if their jobs are in danger. 

Second: targeted jobs programs to stimulate and reward private sector employers and non-profit organizations. The Economic Policy Institute has championed a job creation tax credit to discount the hiring of unemployed workers. (In rare bipartisan spirit, Congress was moving towards some employment tax relief in late February, but more needs to be done.) In addition, increased funding for important programs like Job Corps, Americorps, and the Peace Corps, can ensure that young people who are trying to enter the job market in the midst of this economic turmoil have a chance to get a foothold in that crucial first job, gaining the work experience and paychecks that come along with it. 

Finally, Congress must provide a long-term extension of  unemployment benefits in response to the unprecedented number of long-term unemployed in this Great Recession. If Congress does not provide the needed relief,  by June the number of unemployed who have exhausted their benefits will swell to a whopping 5 million. 

Our nation survived the Great Depression because we had great Presidential leadership and a Congress that worked hand in hand with him to address the problems of the entire nation, from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles. Yes, there was war spending (as there is now) to eventually stimulate the economy, but there was also a sense of shared purpose, of pulling together. 

2010 is not 1933, but if we don't learn lessons from past challenges, we can't expect to move forward. The President during that earlier crisis, Franklin D. Roosevelt, provided the rationale for a collective response, then and now: "In our personal ambitions we are individualists. But in our seeking for economic and political progress as a nation, we all go up or else all go down as one people." Now is the time for us to act together; not for our economy, but for our people. -- Aaron L. Wittnebel and Michael J. Wilson

(Aaron L. Wittnebel is the state coordinator of Minnesota Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) and Michael J. Wilson is the National Director of ADA.)