There’s now an odd aspect to Labor Day. It was born as a day of rest for working Americans who found unlimited ways to toil in a booming nation.
But this Labor Day brings another year of too many who can’t find work. Too many underemployed or working part-time when they want full-time jobs. Too many for whom work that pays enough to support a family and buy a car and home is beyond their reach.
This Labor Day should be an occasion that’s less about a rest from work and more about how the rest will get back to work.
Jobs are the No. 1 issue on the public’s mind. It needs to become the No. 1 issue for leaders of the state and nation. Not “Obamacare.” Not tax cuts. Not the debt ceiling. Jobs.
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In North Carolina, Republicans took over the General Assembly and then the governorship talking about creating jobs. They celebrate every down-tick in the state’s unemployment rate, but that has become an unreliable measure of what’s really happening in the job market. Some of the rate’s decline reflects a shrinking labor force. Many of the jobs are low-paying.
For instance, there are now 426,000 people in North Carolina employed in the restaurant business, and those jobs are growing at 4 percent a year, according to the N.C. Restaurant and Lodging Association. It’s good people have work, but a strong economy will need more than people waiting tables and working in fast-food kitchens.
But that’s the kind of work state policy is encouraging. Sharp cuts in unemployment benefits force people to take whatever job they can find rather the job they are best suited for and can earn the most doing. The state’s sputtering economic development efforts won’t help lure employers who bring well-paying jobs.
High unemployment in the state’s rural counties receives scant attention. Most of the state’s job growth is confined to its three largest urban areas. Meanwhile, the failure of state spending to keep pace with growth is choking the public sector, usually a producer of stable jobs with good benefits.
State policy and spending can’t do much to move an economy driven by national trends. But the state could help the healing economy by taking the politics out of job creation. That starts with being honest about the jobs situation instead of waving around unemployment rate numbers. The next legislative session should start with an admission that the job market, while recovering, is still poor for many North Carolinians and that wages are stagnant.
The state should invest in two engines of North Carolina’s economy: higher education and health care. Restore funding cuts to the University of North Carolina and expand Medicaid. At the same time, make a serious effort to address the state’s rural economies where towns are losing population and industry is not being attracted.
On the federal level, an end to gridlock would go a long way to unlocking the job market. It’s unlikely to happen, but what should happen is a bipartisan agreement to step up spending on infrastructure and funding for high-tech research. Immigration reform would ease the flow of laborers and highly trained workers and give the economy a jolt.
Finally, there should be a broad and deep effort to reduce student debt. The debt burden is impeding the ability of young people to build savings and credit. That limits their ability to buy homes and holds back the housing industry and the durable goods manufacturers that rely on it.
After World War II, the GI Bill enabled a generation to go to college, obtain mortgages and take a place in the middle class. A national investment in today’s young Americans – help with students loans, more access to training and federally backed mortgages – could spur a similar wave.
Today the United States arrives at yet another Labor Day with too many without labor. It’s time for the state and nation to resolve to get all Americans who want to work back to work.