Things have not been working out for the Congressional Black Caucus. Between its 43 members, this year the organization has introduced 40 different jobs bills to address the national unemployment rate of 9.1 percent (and 16.2 percent for African Americans in particular). They've met twice with President Obama on the issue. But their legislative efforts haven't gained enough support to pass through Congress. So they've decided to sidestep the usual tactics with a new approach: hitting the road for a multicity jobs tour.
Scheduled to kick off in Chicago this summer, the CBC's For the People Jobs Initiative will host job fairs in some of the country's most economically distressed cities, including Detroit, Cleveland and Los Angeles. More than just job fairs, however, each two-day stop will also incorporate a town hall meeting in which job seekers can offer feedback and describe their employment challenges.
The CBC plans to continue introducing legislation based on this community response. At the tour's end, the organization will commission a newly created CBC jobs advisory council of top black economic and business experts, to draft a report tying together each component of the initiative. The report will detail the outcomes of each event and propose a long-term solution for job creation and economic growth.
Missouri Democratic Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, chair of the CBC, spoke exclusively to The Root about the new jobs initiative. He revealed his irritation with Senate Democrats, the first steps of a possible bipartisan approach to dealing with black unemployment and why he believes the CBC is doing its part.
The Root: Why did you decide to launch the For the People Jobs Initiative?
Emanuel Cleaver: The Congressional Black Caucus is frustrated over the issue of jobs, or the lack thereof. There are a lot of people talking about it, but after all is said and done, there's always more said than done. So we decided that we would put something in place that could create employment opportunities for people around the country, and the discussion eventually led to this jobs tour that we will be launching shortly.
TR: Last week the Congressional Progressive Caucus announced that it will also be launching a jobs tour this summer. Why didn't the two caucuses combine efforts, and how are they different from each other?
EC: Most of the CBC members, me included, are members of the Progressive Caucus. However, I've explained to the chairs of the Progressive Caucus that what they are doing needs to be done — they are going around the country, joined by labor unions, and they will have rallies drawing attention to the unacceptably high levels of unemployment in this country. They're hoping that, through generating a great deal of attention on joblessness, it might force Congress to begin to take some action.
We, on the other hand, are not going to do a symbolic tour where jobs are not really going to present themselves. We are more of a direct-action caucus; we intend to create jobs for people.
TR: The CBC approach to jobs also includes 40 pieces of legislation that have been introduced, but last month you told The Root that "legislation won't matter" because it can't pass a Republican-controlled House. Are these bills more of a political statement than a viable solution?
EC: Each of the bills that we've introduced, if approved, would immediately address a number of issues that all Americans face — African Americans just face them in larger percentages. [What they address] is job training, government-supported jobs programs, as well as the funding of projects similar to what President Roosevelt used in his fight against the Depression in the 1930s.
We know that the chances of our legislation being brought to the floor are not very high, if they register at all. Nonetheless, no one will be able to say that the Congressional Black Caucus sat on its hands and did nothing while Rome burned. We've introduced legislation, we have made appeals to the White House, we have made appeals to the Republicans and, frankly, to the Democratic Caucus as well. We want it to be said of the Congressional Black Caucus that we did everything that we could conceivably do to solve the knotty problem of unemployment.
And look — at our job fairs, we're going to have people hired, but there's no way we're going to get enough people hired to dramatically reduce the number of the African-American unemployed.
TR: The CBC also wasn't able to pass a direct jobs-creation bill during the two years that Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. Why didn't the Democrats do it then?
EC: Well, we did get some things through the House, during the days of the Democratic majority in the House, but they didn't get through the Senate. We got an extension of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families [Emergency Contingency Fund] [pdf] through. The American Clean Energy and Security Act [pdf] also passed the House, which would have made dollars available for not only the creation of green-collar jobs but the creation of a structure that would make those jobs functional in the future.
As angry as I get with my fellow Democrats in the House, I've got to say that we did send bills to the Senate that would have made a dramatic difference had they been approved. The Senate, you know, does what the Senate does — which is nothing.
TR: What kinds of companies will participate in the CBC job fairs, and are they really hiring?
EC: This will not be the traditional job fair where the vice president of communications comes out to talk about how great the company is, and how they want people to keep them in mind when there are openings. The only companies we're inviting to participate are companies that are hiring now.
We have a jobs advisory council that we're working with from all different industries, from the hospitality industry to food services to corporate America. We want to make sure that the needs of everyone who comes out are met.
TR: What do you hope to get out of the tour's town hall component?
EC: That is an area that's actually more compatible with what the Progressive Caucus is doing. We would love to have anecdotal data about what's going on out here in the country. The view by many who are fortunate enough to have jobs is that unemployed people are somehow unworthy, are simply sluggish and just don't want to work.
Whereas we know that there are professionals, many with multiple degrees, who through no fault of their own have found themselves without jobs because of layoffs, government cutbacks and so forth. We have to have names and stories to share with those here in Washington as we continue our fight to get jobs.
TR: Some of the black unemployment problem, though, also involves a lack of education and basic skills, like putting together résumés and cover letters. Will the jobs initiative address how these African Americans can make themselves more marketable?
EC: That's exactly what we're going to be doing, trying to help people market themselves. We'll have a series of workshops [during each job fair] on résumé building, how to draft cover letters, how to communicate better and ideas for making yourself more [marketable]. For those who come in who want jobs but don't have a high school education, we'll have people there with information on GED courses, community college and things like that.
TR: Last month you met with President Obama about a way to create jobs without going through Congress. What was that plan exactly, and what became of it?
EC: We did present the president with a plan that would allow federal funds to go in larger amounts to areas where we've had persistent poverty and unemployment. The plan called on the government to use existing federal dollars so that there would not be the need for one penny to be appropriated above what we've already approved. The president had some questions about it, and he said he was going to talk with his Cabinet about how something like this could work.
We presented the same plan to the Republican leadership, and to be completely fair to Republicans, they like it. We're already taking the first step, which is to study how much money is going into these areas already, and measure the disparity based on how we spend money presently.
TR: Anything you want to add about the tour?
EC: We're also going to have a tour bus that members will be traveling in to each event. People all over the country, when they see this bus, will know that the Congressional Black Caucus is on the move for jobs. We're excited about the initiative and think it will catch on.
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.