President Obama is proposing important steps toward doing what Americans have been asking for since the financial collapse of 2008 — putting a focus on families and jobs.
To create real prosperity, though, Washington will have to deal with three main drivers of our economic malaise: massive inequality such that the super wealthy and big corporations are sitting on piles of cash while ordinary Americans’ can barely get by; enormous ongoing expenditures for wars; and assaults on our natural systems, including our climate, such that the costs of everything from insurance to food is rising while our security is threatened.
Without families buying things, the economy can’t revive and create jobs. That’s why our solutions need to focus on ways to support small businesses, which create the bulk of the jobs and keep money flowing locally instead of flowing to distant corporate headquarters.
In Cleveland, a local foundation, inner-city residents, hospital and university collaborated to create locally rooted cooperatives that supply these and other institutions with solar energy, eco-friendly laundry services and locally grown vegetables. The workers from this rust-belt city are the owners, and they’re creating jobs that can’t be outsourced.
Despite the credit crunch afflicting businesses nationwide, there’s one place where credit continues to flow: North Dakota, which has the nation’s only state-owned bank. The Bank of North Dakota partners with community banks to get credit to the state’s farms and local businesses. The results are the lowest unemployment rate in the country and a state budget surplus, when most other states are facing fiscal crises.
When local businesses and family farms thrive, the benefits ripple out into the community. These local enterprises buy from other local business, driving demand that creates even more jobs. This sort of economic activity results in prosperity based on real goods and services, not speculative bubbles.
Many young people are focusing less on jobs than on DIY livelihoods made up partly of paid work and partly of doing more themselves — growing food, making and fixing things, and starting micro-businesses. They’re finding creative ways to make do with less and to share and exchange with friends and neighbors.
The best of these diverse livelihoods tap into the rising demand for goods and services that are sustainable — grown or made close to home without toxins and without pollution, produced by workers who are fairly compensated, and made by companies with a long-term commitment to the well-being of the human and ecological community.
But how about President Obama and the U.S. Congress? What can we expect from our federal government?
In a country still the wealthiest in the world, we should insist that our government invest in education, restore failing infrastructure and lead the transition to a clean-energy economy. Single-payer health care could provide security to would-be entrepreneurs while ending excessive premiums and out-of-pocket medical costs that are creating a major drag on the economy. Trade policies should be re-crafted to reverse offshoring of jobs. We could share jobs more broadly, so there is enough work and free time to go around. And we should preserve intact a safety net that keeps millions of seniors, children, disabled and unemployed from complete destitution.
With a fair tax policy — like the tax rate for the wealthy in effect during the Eisenhower years — we could pay for these investments. And we could save money by diverting our tax dollars from corporate subsidies and the world’s largest military budget to investments in our future.
These are policies that large majorities of Americans support. Groups like the recently formed movement to Rebuild the Dream are mobilizing hundreds of thousands of people to counter the lopsided clout of large corporations and the very wealthy and get these sort of family-friendly policies enacted.
We don’t have to be satisfied with unemployment and a stagnant economy. By rebuilding our local economies, changing policies that only benefit the super-rich and investing in a transition to an environmentally friendly society, the United States can still achieve real prosperity.
Sarah van Gelder is executive editor and co-founder of YES! Magazine. Her article on jobs and livelihoods appears in the Fall 2011 issue of YES! and at www.yesmagazine.org.