We are pleased that President-elect Obama has announced he will propose an Economic Recovery plan aimed at putting Americans to work in transportation infrastructure, public school buildings and clean energy projects. At a time when the nation’s economy is shedding jobs by the hundreds of thousands, per month, job creation must become a priority for the Obama administration.
The focus on our nation’s transportation infrastructure is a two-fer. Across the country there are a myriad of surface transportation (e.g. roads, bridges and tunnels) and mass transit projects that are long overdue. In cities and suburban communities our transportation grid is falling apart before our very eyes. Travel across major interstate highways and the deterioration is evident. The collapse of the I-35W Bridge in Minneapolis was a warning sign of impending disasters if the nation does not take seriously the need to reinvest and reinvest now in our crumbling infrastructure. So, while jobs may be the object of Mr. Obama’s plan, the public will also gain the comfort of knowing roads and structures are safe and not in danger of imminent collapse if a workforce is assigned to these critical projects. The one drawback is the ramp up time for a major transportation project could be extensive, meaning that it may be difficult to create enough jobs quick enough to have an impact on the economy.
Likewise, the idea of generating jobs attached to the “green” economy is an idea that has been much discussed in recent years. Clearly there are millions of structures, school buildings included, that could be retrofit and made more energy efficient. There are also dwellings that need to be renovated to remove toxins like lead and asbestos; many of them dating back to the early 20th century, some even earlier, in large urban centers. There is no shortage of these opportunities but the key will be providing training that will properly prepare workers to tackle these jobs so there is no question about the quality of the work.
While the focus on jobs is commendable, the number proposed by President-elect Obama – 2.5 million – might be too small considering the magnitude of job loss we are experiencing. The plan also does not directly address the dire circumstances of the working poor in America. For workers who have a full time job that is paying low wages and no benefits, having a job is simply not sufficient to prevent a wholesale slide into poverty. Among people in this category are young adults, age 16 to 24, so-called “disconnected youth,” who have dropped out of school and are out of the labor market. The number of disconnected youth has been estimated between 5 and 7 million nationally with large pockets in cities. These young adults are often contributors to their household’s income and are not working as a luxury but out of economic necessity. They are chronically unemployed and if something is not done to improve their economic standing, they stand to increase in number and pose a long-term threat to the nation’s competitiveness.
President-elect Obama has taken a step in the right direction by focusing on the nation’s economy but it is only a step. The hard work is still to be tackled, such as determining the appropriate intervention for Detroit auto manufacturers, how best to aid homeowners facing foreclosure, and loosening credit.