The experts tell us the U.S. economy started growing again last quarter. They point to positive signs such as the increase in the gross domestic product and an uptick in the Dow Jones industrial average. But the truth is, most American families are still not convinced.
With a national unemployment rate of just over 10 percent and an underemployment rate of around 18 percent, Americans are focused on the challenges of supporting their families and not on economic signs pointing to recovery. To them, real recovery means jobs. And in many respects, they are right.
As we complete our work to improve health care for all Americans, Senate Democrats have begun crafting legislation to create jobs on a broad scale in the next 12 months.
But as serious as the job situation has become, we are also faced with historic fiscal challenges. So we are focusing on policies that will help create the largest number of jobs for the fewest taxpayer dollars.
Working closely with Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and members of our caucus, we have identified several targeted policies that we believe will encourage significant job creation next year.
First, small-business jobs. Small businesses are the engine of our economy and have been responsible for 65 percent of the new hires in America in the past 15 years. But the credit crunch has hit small businesses especially hard. Lenders — many of whom were responsible for the current economic mess — are no longer willing to extend credit for these businesses to operate and expand.
We need to create an environment where credit markets open and small banks and credit unions will find it in their best interest to lend again. To do so, we’ll improve the Small Business Administration’s lending guarantee programs to entice more lenders to participate more aggressively. We will work with the Treasury Department to create a new lending pool within the Troubled Asset Relief Program to facilitate sensible small-business borrowing. And we will work to provide businesses with direct tax incentives to encourage new hires.
Second, infrastructure jobs. Unemployment in the construction industry is nearing 20 percent while state and local governments have $47 billion worth of transportation infrastructure projects that could begin work in 90 to 120 days. Our package will help match the huge supply of skilled workers with the equally large demand for projects by significantly increasing the federal spending dedicated to infrastructure in 2010. These good-paying jobs will last beyond next year and will help create a modernized national infrastructure, which will pay dividends for many years to come.
Third, clean energy jobs. Our nation’s homes, factories and schools are deteriorating because of deferred maintenance and lack of funds. The result: a wide and widening gap between the most energy-efficient building techniques and the crippling energy usage of our aging buildings. The collapse of the housing market has left tens of thousands of experienced contractors unable to find work but who possess the skills and tools necessary to retrofit buildings for energy efficiency.
Our bill will put these builders back to work by making targeted investments in pilot programs that will help us find the smartest ways to encourage energy retrofits throughout America. If successful, these programs can be expanded on a larger scale in years to come.
Finally, public service jobs. Thirty-six states face steep deficits next year, and the demand for teachers, police and firefighters across the nation continues to grow. Many state and local governments are finding it hard to keep pace with that growth or even maintain current jobs levels. Without help, tens of thousands of these vital public service jobs will be lost next year. In the short term, we intend to help ensure that these three critical groups of workers are kept on the job, even as state governments struggle to balance their books.
We will also work to ensure that this package is paid for. We’ll start by putting TARP funds to work helping Main Street, not just Wall Street.
This jobs package is only a beginning. Congress will continue to craft job-creating bills throughout 2010, and we will work hard to enact them into law as quickly as possible. A meaningful and sustained recovery won’t be fully realized until we put Americans back to work.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) is Senate Majority Whip.