I am walking up Fourteenth Street in Washington, DC. It is a lovely day, crisp and with a light breeze in the air. It is a beautiful day, without a cloud in the sky, an uplifting and exciting day that swirls the spirit and energizes the soul. And yet, just a few steps up the street from my home, there is a man, fast asleep, sprawled all over the sidewalk. I struggle with a medley of emotions - concern, disgust, empathy, and annoyance. Who is this middle aged white man, legs akimbo on the street? How has he come to be here?
I have to remind myself that the unemployment numbers simply suggest he has fallen on hard times. The overall unemployment rate, at 9.6 percent, means that one in ten people who are looking for work can't find a job. For African Americans, the unemployment rate is more than 16 percent, or one in six people without work. If we consider the people who have dropped out of the labor force, who work part time but really want full time work, we are looking at 17 percent overall, and nearly 29 percent for African Americans. We are looking at millions of human beings who would be productive if they only had the opportunity.
The high unemployment rate is a concern for news writers, but more have been trumpeting "economic recovery". When they speak of recovery, they need to speak to this man, this neighbor, who decided that, on a Sunday afternoon, his best shot at peace was to lie down and chill. He is not the only one chilling. Millions are somehow sitting at the periphery of the economy, waiting for opportunity. And opportunity has not come knocking.
When will there be a knock on the door, an opportunity for economic expansion? No time soon, according to data that suggest that it may take another three to five years before we see unemployment rates as low as 7 percent. Too many people are tying to make their own way - creating their own jobs, own opportunities, and own possibilities. In some ways it's a good thing that people are engaged enough to create jobs for themselves. Will this be the way, though, of the next decade?
People can create their own jobs, but they can't necessarily create their own social insurance programs. What happens to sick leave, retirement, and other benefits that are ordinarily associated with full employment? Are we angling to have a labor market full of freelancers who do their own thing and create their own space? What are the long-term implications of having a dozen or so million people doing their own thing? What will that mean in terms of the social capital we can expect to harvest in the future?
Just a week from now, on November 2, our nation's voters will return to the polls to select our leadership for the next two years. Our actions will determine wither President Obama has the opportunity to work with a compatible Congress or whether he will have to spend the next two years fighting detractors. Even if our President is blessed with compatible democrats, it is clear (as democrats have led the congress for the past two years) that there will be challenges. This election is one where we will decide whether to move forward with public policy or to turn backward. The Obama election has meant a step forward - with health care, financial reform, and other major challenges changing the national landscape. What's next?
I saw a man lying on the sidewalk, and I didn't have a chance to hear his story. He was jobless, undoubtedly, and maybe also homeless. His countenance was challenged, as if he had given up. I don't know his story, but I know that there are thousands of men like him, men who need an opportunity to engage in our economy. His face is one that I won't forget on November 2. What face will you bring to the polls with you? Will that face compel you to move forward or to step backward? This election, like our nation's future, is in each of our hands.
Dr. Julianne Malveaux is a noted economist and the president of Bennett College for Women.