By Lee A. Daniels
The federal jobs reports for September issued last week showed the year’s slow – and therefore, disappointing – rate of job growth has weakened just a bit more.
The Department of Labor found that businesses added 148,000 jobs in September. That number was below the 185,000-per-month rate which had been the average growth for the previous year. So, even though the official unemployment rate slipped a notch from 7.3 percent to 7.2 percent, that barely registered as a positive.
The first sentence of an analysis of the report in the New York Times put it best: “The American economy continues to tread water underwater.”
Indeed, the most positive thing about the jobs report is that its middling statistics have again placed high on the public agenda what the Republican Party-engineered government-shutdown and debt-ceiling gambit had pushed into the deep background: America’s jobs crisis.
During the last month it may have been difficult for some to remember that getting more Americans back to work and at decent wages was what occupied much of the political discourse during the summer.
That discussion had acquired a special sense of urgency because of the 50th anniversary on August 28 of the 1963 March on Washington – a landmark event which demanded not only an end to racial discrimination and the protection of civil rights for Black Americans but also full employment and decent wages for all American workers.
Further, the link between that past and our present was dramatically underscored by the one-day work stoppages staged by fast-food workers in at least 50 cities to protest their extremely low wages and lack of protection from unfair on-the-job treatment. For one thing, their actions dispelled the mistaken notion that most fast-food workers are high school teens working for spending change for themselves. In fact, the large majority are adults with families to support.
Their predicament and that of other low-wage workers – the fastest-growing category of all workers since the Great Recession ended – was underscored by two reports published last month. One was the federal Census Bureau’s annual tally on poverty in the U.S. It found the situation in 2012 largely unchanged from the previous year: 15 percent of Americans, or 46.5 million people, lived at or below the poverty line. (The government puts that figure at $23,492 for a family of four.) This included 16.1 million children, nearly 22 percent of all U.S. children under 18.
But a report published by the Washington-based nonprofit, Wider Opportunities for Women, contended that the combination of rising consumer costs and stagnating wages has left millions of workers with incomes above the official poverty line also struggling to pay for such basic necessities as housing, utilities, food, child care, transportation and health care. These individuals and families lack “economic security” – the ability to weather an unforeseen financial crisis such as a severe illness, the loss of a job, or even the breakdown of their motor vehicle.
In that regard, the events of recent months have been a vivid reminder that decent wages and decent working conditions are what connect individuals to the larger society. They are, in effect, a fundamental marker of citizenship.
That connection was starkly evident during the Civil Rights years of the 1950s and 1960s because the widespread bigotry Blacks endured resulted in their being locked out of many blue- and white-collar jobs in the North and West as well as the South. The continuing impact of discrimination of the past and present on Black Americans’ job-holding and economic status can be seen in the fact that their unemployment rate at nearly every rung of the economic ladder has been at least twice that of Whites for more than half a century.
For example, the federal jobs report found that while the September unemployment rate for Whites was 6.3 percent, it was 12.9 percent for Blacks (compared to 9.0 percent for Hispanic Americans) – a figure that is more than 3 percentage points above the highest level the national unemployment rate hit during the Great Recession.
So, we should recognize that the battle between the Obama administration and the Republicans in Congress this month actually underscores the message of the 1963 March: the connection between economic justice and social justice: jobs and freedom—is more important than ever.
A half-century ago civil rights activists and labor movement activists pooled their talents and resources to help produce a different distribution of power that enormously benefited Black Americans and Americans workers in general.
Today’s political and economic landscape is even more complex; but the fundamental point still holds: It still is about jobs and freedom.
Lee A. Daniels is a longtime journalist based in New York City. His latest book is Last Chance: The Political Threat to Black America.