Mixed Feelings After White House Jobs Summit

Business executives, financial experts and economists gathered Thursday with President Obama at the White House to swap ideas about how to jumpstart the economy. But critics say the president's job summit was a public relations stunt, and are skeptical that it will do anything to spur the economy along or encourage employers to start hiring again. New York Rep. Gregory Meeks, who serves on the House Financial Services Committee, and Detroit Mayor Dave Bing talk about the needs of their constituents and what they hope to see come out of this summit.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, they seem to be everywhere this time of year, the red kettles and bell ringers asking for your help. But what do you really know about the history and mission of the Salvation Army? We'll tell you more in just a few minutes.

But first, in our weekly political chat, we want to talk about jobs. The Labor Department today announced the jobless rate dropped to 10 percent in November. That's a slight improvement from the 10.2 percent rate in October, and it signaled that employers cut fewer jobs than expected last month. It's a rare bit of good news in what has been a very dire period for people seeking work. That's one reason President Obama hosted a job summit yesterday bringing together executives from marquee companies like FedEx and Google, along with small business owners, economists, labor leaders and some political leaders and activists, all to brainstorm ways to create jobs.

Some critics are calling it a publicity stunt that won't do anything, and others are saying there is nothing the president really can do. We decided to call two elected officials who have been very concerned about the employment situation, to talk more about this. Congressman Gregory Meeks, who represents New York's Sixth District, joins us from the NPR bureau in New York. Representative Meeks is a member of the House Financial Services Committee. Also joining us on the line is Detroit Mayor Dave Bing. Mayor Bing was one of four mayors to attend the summit. He is dealing with one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, well above the national average. These gentlemen are both Democrats. Gentlemen, thank you so much for joining us.

Representative GREGORY MEEKS (Democrat, New York): It's great being with you, Michel.

Mayor DAVE BING (Detroit): Very good. Thank you so much, Michel.

MARTIN: Mayor Bing, you attended the summit. Why did you go, and do you think anything will come out of it?

Mayor BING: Well, I'm hopeful that something positive will come out of it. But there's a reality check that I'm not sure that government - are job creators. I think they can help create an atmosphere for change. But the public sector - the private sector is where jobs are going to be created, and most jobs in the private sector will be created by small-business people.

MARTIN: Did you have any specific suggestions for the president or for the other people attending the group with you?

Mayor BING: I think one of the things that's still important - it takes way too long - the whole stimulus package that's being - that's been propagated is taking way too long to get where it needs to get. For example, in order for the city to get its stimulus money, the money goes to the state first and then to the city. So, you just get caught up in a lot of red tape, and people are out there suffering. And the best thing to do, in my opinion, is get the money directly to the municipality that needs it and Detroit, without a doubt, needs it as bad as anybody in the country.

MARTIN: Congressman Meeks, you voted for that $787 billion stimulus package. And first of all, do you agree with the mayor, that perhaps its directing the funds towards states instead of localities was not the best idea, even though that decision has already been made. And why do you think it's not achieving better results?

Rep. MEEKS: Well, I think that the mayor is correct in that it's slow getting out. A substantial amount of the money has yet to be spent. And we've got to get that money out into the areas where it needs to be so that it can be a job creator or help - you know, for example - with infrastructure. But I think the mayor was also correct that government can only do but so much. We've got to stabilize this economy, and we've got to again in our financial institutions have liquidity that will give small businesses the kinds of access to loans, etc., that they can continue to make payrolls and create jobs.

But we can't panic. I mean, we have to have stability and economic foundation. And I think that as we fix that market, then we can then have the incentives to get private enterprises to small businesses in particular to begin hiring again.

MARTIN: Congressman Meeks, there have been a number of published reports highlighting complaints against the administration by the Congressional Black Caucus, of which you are a member. In fact, you are one of 10 caucus members who boycotted a key Financial Services Committee vote held this week. Why did you stage that boycott, and what specifically do you want the administration to do?

Rep. MEEKS: Well, what we are trying to highlight is the dire straits that African-Americans, in particular, are suffering from as a result of this crisis. And therefore, we think that there should be a specific focus or spotlight put on that agenda, so that we can make sure that they are included and that - become the last to recover in this recovery package and as we look to create jobs.

And so it was not, and I want to stress, anything to deal with the bill itself because most of us - all of us were supportive of the bill. But it is to say that there are things that we can do in certain policies that we can put in place that can make for African-American businesses because they create jobs in the communities that are hard-hit. We want those small businesses to be able to stand on their feet because they are job creators. And that's the emphasis that we were´┐Ż

MARTIN: OK, I understand. But you just heard Mayor Bing, who was a small-business person prior to taking office. And you, yourself, have said that you don't feel that there's a very great deal that the government can do, but you feel obviously there's something the government can do. What do you want the administration to do?

Rep. MEEKS: Well, absolutely. I mean, there are certain pieces that we could put in place as far as access to capital and working to make sure that it is getting into the right hands. We can also be focused on, I mean, the mayor used to be an auto dealer. We see disproportionately African-American auto dealerships when they were closed, where African-Americans - we're down, we're going down to under 100, under very less - I think it's 75 if the closes continue. And there are things that we can do to make sure that those kinds of businesses and government can continue to exist, and hire people in the communities that are in dire straits.

MARTIN: If you are just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about President Obama's job summit yesterday. We're speaking with the mayor of Detroit, Dave Bing. He attended the summit. We're also speaking with congressman Gregory Meeks of New York. He is a member of the House Financial Services Committee, and he has some concerns about the administration's approach to the unemployment situation so far.

Mr. Mayor, there were some interesting panels at the summit. One dealt with the creation of jobs through national infrastructure projects. Another panel explored ways to create jobs through emerging green industries. Did you hear anything at the summit? Did it give you any new ideas that you thought you could implement right away - or is it mainly long term strategies that policy leaders need to be thinking about?

Rep. MEEKS: Well, I think there's some immediate things that need to happen because once again, people are in pain and you know, people are frustrated, people are angry. They don't think that they're getting the help or the attention. And I think what the summit yesterday did was focus on attention more than anything else. We hear you. But in terms of coming out of that summit was something very - a deliverable. I really don't think that we had a deliverable yesterday.

I think what's happening is a lot of the long-term thinkers or long-term planners are looking at how to have a positive impact on the communities around the country that are hurting. But in the short term, I don't think anybody has come up with any ideas to get the money where it's needed. And that's in our neighborhoods and our urban centers.

MARTIN: How are - how are you keeping - I mean, I hate to draw on cliches here, but how are you keeping hope alive? How are you encouraging your city to - people in your city to keep their heads up at such a difficult time? As we mentioned - I'm not sure what the latest figures are for Detroit - but in October, the unemployment rate was hovering around 17 percent. And many people say that the real unemployment rate, particularly in the African-American community, among African-American males, is around 25 percent. So it's actually far worse than official figures demonstrate, you know, overall. So, how are you keeping people's spirits up, Mr. Mayor, if I may ask?

Mayor BING: I think the most interesting thing is, is people do understand about the time that it takes to get decisions from a political standpoint. And people have been frustrated. This is not the first time that they've gone through this, but this is the worst debt that I think we have seen in the city of Detroit over the last 50 years.

Unemployment hovers around 30 percent. That's reported unemployment. I believe it's higher than that because people have just stopped looking and have given up. So, you have to constantly talk to people, communicate as best you can, tell people the truth, and hope that they keep faith. Because once again, this political game that - I'm just finding out, things move very, very slow.

MARTIN: Congressman Meeks, we've last talked about the foreclosure issue in your district, and how your district is one of the hardest hit in your area. What about you? Are any of the initiatives that the administration has started helping? One of the things that you recently announced is that the Treasury Department says that they will send so-called financial SWAT teams to the nation's largest mortgage lenders to study their operations, to see if they're actually converting some of these mortgages into more manageable terms for homeowners. Is anything making a difference for your constituents?

Rep. MEEKS: It hasn't hit the ground yet. Again, it has been slow. And, you know, I'm looking at, for example, somewhat hopeful in regards to the recent development, for example, with the Bank of America, where - and other top money, that as that money is being repaid, that we can then take a number of those dollars - because it's being repaid with interest - and get that money back into the cities that Mayor Bing is talking about. But also make sure that those banks are aggressively participating in foreclosure mitigation. That's what is key to me, when I'm able to sit down with my constituency and with the lender, so that many of those individuals who can't afford to continue to pay their mortgage, but needs to have them mitigated, that we can actually get that done. And that's not taking place at the degree that I would like it at this point in time.

MARTIN: And finally, congressman, we only have a minute left. When your constituents come to you and say, how do I hold on? How long is this going to last? What do you tell them?

Rep. MEEKS: It's a hard story because, you know, the truth of the matter is in my personal estimation, it is - we are still close to at least a year away from having the overall kind of recovery that's really going to begin stimulate the kins of jobs that are necessary to begin to reduce unemployment. And I think that the only answer is a part of what the mayor has said, is to get the money more directly into cities and into hands of people who need it today and need it right now.

MARTIN: Congressman Gregory Meeks represents New York's Sixth Congressional District. He's a member of the House Financial Services Committee, and he was kind enough to join us from NPR's bureau in New York. Dave Bing is the mayor of Detroit. He was re-elected to a full term last November. He was one of four mayors to attend the president's job summit yesterday, and he joined us by phone. Gentlemen, I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mayor BING: Thank you very much.

Rep. MEEKS: Thank you.

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