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Unemployment has soared above 10 percent, but that figure doesn’t count those forced to work part-time, those who have given up in despair, young people who were never able to get hired. There are now 25 million people unemployed.
For African Americans, it is worse. African Americans are experiencing a silent depression. Unemployment is more than 18 percent; underemployment even higher. And among black teens, unemployment is more than 40 percent.
This is combined with a staggering loss of wealth among what was the emerging African-American middle class — a group devastated by the collapse of the housing bubble. African-Americans were prime targets of mortgage companies peddling misleading mortgages, with low entry rates, hidden fees and exploding interest-rate escalation clauses. Having redlined urban areas for decades, mortgage brokers then targeted them for subprime mortgages. Too many families aspiring to own their own homes assumed that their jobs were secure and that they could always remortgage after their low entry rates expired — and got caught.
Now foreclosures eradicate the value of neighboring homes, even when the homeowners pay their mortgage. Loss of jobs endangers more homes. As prices go down, homes are worth less than their mortgages, so families can’t refinace. And increasingly, young men and women can’t find jobs to help their families in the crunch.
“The untold story is that between unemployment, a significant drop in property values, the wave of foreclosures and a lack of credit, there is a whole generation of African-American wealth that is disappearing,” said Jean Pogge, executive vice president of ShoreBank, a community bank serving minorities in Chicago.
Economists now project that unemployment will continue to rise next year, probably to more than 11 percent. That will mean unemployment rates of more than 50 percent for black teenagers. Worse, many believe the recovery will be a jobless one, with corporate profits, the stock market, and of course, Wall Street recovering years before the jobs come back.
The federal government must act. What we need now are direct employment projects: an urban corps that will employ young people and provide them with work in everything from cleaning parks to refitting buildings; a green corps that will employ people directly in reforesting America and fixing up national parks. Congress needs to expand the money going to infrastructure projects and put construction workers to work in repairing sewers and roads. States and localities should get aid on the condition that they sustain employment.
But more than that, we need a fundamental commitment to rebuild America — and to make certain that the jobs are kept in America. The president should lay out a 10-year program to make America energy independent that includes public investment in the green equivalents of projects like the Tennessee Valley Authority and Hoover Dam. This also would include major investments in wind farms and solar energy, the refitting of buildings and modernization of America’s electrical distribution infrastructure. These investments should be combined with buy-America provisions, ensuring those taxpayers’ dollars are spent on putting people to work here. America needs to help lead the new green industrial revolution — but we won’t succeed without a clear policy to ensure that we make things in America again.
In the short term, we should finance this construction and put people to work. We should commit now to pay for it over time, taxing Wall Street with a securities transaction tax that would slow down speculation and generate more than $100 billion a year.
But these are details. What is needed is commitment and energy. Nothing is more devastating than a long-term depression that crushes hope, squanders skills and leaves men and women in poverty. We need action, experimentation and bold efforts now.
This column originally appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times.