Jesse Jackson Wants Assurance That Jobs Bill Will Help Blacks

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Host Michel Martin speaks with the Reverend Jesse Jackson about the jobs bill, and how it will affect minorities in the U-S.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Im Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Just ahead, well talk about a change in a long tradition at Ole Miss, and well have our final conversation for Black History Month. Thats all coming up a bit later.

But we wanted to talk a bit more about the jobs bill and how it might affect particularly people of color who are unemployed. So, weve called for additional perspective, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, president and founder of the RainbowPUSH Coalition. Of course, he is a long-time civil rights activist, a former Democratic presidential candidate, and hes with us by phone from London. Welcome, welcome back, I should say.

Reverend JESSE JACKSON (President and Founder, RainbowPUSH Coalition): Very well.

MARTIN: How do you respond to this move? And, you know, obviously a lot of people and a lot of Democrats in the Senate are relieved that the Congress has finally perceived to be doing something to address the unemployment problems. Do you feel similarly encouraged?

Rev. JACKSON: Well, it is a gesture in the right direction, but it does not correspond to the size of the problem. Maybe 20 million Americans unemployed suggest about 9.7 Americans, generally, and for African-Americans about 20 percent and some of these (unintelligible) up to 25 percent in (unintelligible). For about 20 million Americans unemployed, about 40 million in poverty does not correspond to the size of the problem. Wall Street got the bailout, but the working people are really getting a gesture by comparison.

MARTIN: The bill does a couple of things. And, of course, it has to go to the House now and be reconciled with the House, which has some different ideas about what should happen. But it will re-authorize to the end of 2010 the Federal Highway Trust Fund, which uses gasoline taxes to help state and local governments pay for highway and transit projects in it.

And also a significant feature of the bill is a tax credit for companies that hire unemployed workers. The provision exempts workers from paying, you know, the Social Security payroll tax this year, and they get an additional credit if the workers stay hired through the end of the year, for at least a year, I should say. Thats about a $13 billion sort of tax credit. It also gives some businesses tax credits for - it accelerates how they can sort of pay for new expenditure. So, what about that?

Rev. JACKSON: Well, you know, government has to put direct jobs over the tax credit, which has a plus, but (unintelligible) WPA, Workers Progress and the CCC, direct jobs is an asset to where you have these areas of 25 percent unemployment. Plus, Michel, you have the hemorrhaging of jobs.

In Chicago last year, they laid off 1,100 transport workers. I think more than 1,000 (unintelligible) are going to be off in New York, putting buses and mothballs in Cleveland and Atlanta.

So, were still hemorrhaging jobs with the trade imbalance and home foreclosures, and student loan defaults, and credit card scams. Even if we put a few more jobs on the top, were not going to stop the hemorrhaging of manufacturing jobs and houses, and now foreclosures, and student loan defaults.

MARTIN: But youre convinced that direct hiring by the government is the best way to address this problem right now because the president seems to disagree with you. He feels that sort of encouraging businesses to hire more people is more efficient and they can actually get them on the payroll sooner.

Rev. JACKSON: You could...

MARTIN: You just dont agree?

Rev. JACKSON: ...go to Englewood, where the president was an organizer, where you have a crisis of plants closing, jobs leaving, high crime rate of violence, lack of adequate access to transportation. Its not an environment in which small businesses are likely to locate to get the tax credit. Youre going to need here is a stronger rope because people are much further down, youre going to need more than a tax credit.

MARTIN: Now, there was a fairly robust bipartisan vote to advance this bill on the Senate side. It was a 70 to 28 vote. Obviously, there were a number of Republicans who joined with Democrats to pass the bill. But as you know because, you know, youve been in and out of Washington, you know, a lot. But theres a fairly - some people would say poisonous atmosphere around advancing major legislation. The last piece of legislation was passed around on Christmas Eve which was the health care bill which was, of course, has been embroiled in intense fighting ever since.

I think the question I would have is, is there the political will to make the kind of big move forward on job stimulus plan that you think is necessary? I mean, can they do it?

Rev. JACKSON: Because unemployment now is so pervasive, as they move towards election in November, they want to do something. They cant say theyre against the jobs bill, but that something does not correspond with the size of the problem. Look at what we did with the banks, these multibillion dollar bailout deals without linkage to lending, and we put trading and lending in the same shop. And they chose trading over lending, got huge bonuses, and now Wall Street is rising, but unemployment is rising.

Were still hemorrhaging jobs. And just to think about Chicago, New York, Memphis, Oakland, and Atlanta laying off thousands of transport workers putting buses, and trains, and mothballs. We have to look at it in a very real way economic reconstruction, some real plan, the economic reconstruction. I was impressed frankly when the (unintelligible) approach was to restructure banks not just refortify them.

And take lending and trading from under the same roof, strong SEC, a strong FDIC, direct jobs and it (unintelligible). Now thats important because 50 million Americans are food challenged, are food insecure. So, these issues of food insecurity and the lack of jobs among the common people and the traders keep trading.

Im in Britain today. And, well, theres a Royal Bank of Scotland here, or the bank in Germany, or the Netherlands, Belgium, or Wall Street. Its the same phenomenon, where banks have used their concentrated power to lift themselves up and bailed out by the people, but dont bail the people once they get bailed out by the people.

MARTIN: But why do you think that Washington is having such a hard time achieving consensus on the next step forward? Obviously, you know, you hear a lot of the Republican leadership say that they are deeply worried about the deficit. They say that the country cannot afford very much more spending. You know, a number of Republicans did join with Democrats to advance this bill in the Senate.

But Im just asking what is your assessment of why you see it as sort of a clear and present and obvious crisis for the country, but Im just wondering why do you think it is that a number of people just dont seem to see it the way you do or theyre just having trouble getting consensus on what to do?

Rev. JACKSON: I dont know why theres so much difference to the rich and powerful and so much contempt for the poor. Maybe is that the rich and powerful have lobbyists and the lobbyists get the first seat at the table. And so, bailout banks, now theyre too big to fail a year ago and now theyre twice as big and express their contempt by not reinvesting.

Even in the health care bill, the pharmaceuticals and the hospitals are at the table first and demanding more. And they tend to invest heavily in those who do the voting.

MARTIN: And I wanted to ask you, I dont know, on a different note that there has been a I dont know that if youve been made aware that there has been this kind of dust up earlier in the week between the political commentator Tavis Smiley and the Reverend Al Sharpton.

And they had a kind of an ongoing dispute on the air in various programs about whether President Obama is taking the problems of the black community seriously enough and whether there needs to be a more focused agenda directed at African-Americans who are suffering as, of course, you know, disproportionately from high unemployment. And Reverend Sharpton was invited to the White House to talk about these issues. What is your take on this?

Rev. JACKSON: Well, Americans who are black, Americans who are Latino are facing disproportionate pain. Were the victims of reverse redlining by the banks, the banks profile target (unintelligible) clustered our homes and most of our equity has been in the homes, have been ripped off by banks who should have been creditors became predators.

For example, as I said Chicago, 3,500 Chicagoans die a year in one city from health care (unintelligible). Were number one in infant mortality, number one in short life expectancy, number one in unemployment, number one in lack of (unintelligible). So, those Americans, whether they are black or Latino or whether they are white and Appalachian deserve special consideration because theyre in Americas emergency room. And, of course, the presidents all raise the cause of this racial issue as Americas moral dilemma whether it is Lincoln, or Truman, or Eisenhower, or Kennedy, or Johnson, or Clinton. Ultimately, greatness is defined by how they treat it. That dilemma, how they in fact treat the least of these.

MARTIN: The Reverend Jesse Jackson, the president and founder of the RainbowPUSH Coalition. As we mentioned, hes in London, and we reached him there, where hes receiving a number of honors. And hes also working on continuing his work on political activism there and working on voter registration efforts overseas.

So, Reverend Jackson, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Rev. JACKSON: Thank you.

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