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Race and Beyond: Coming Together on Behalf of Unemployed Americans

Kaine and Levin walk to Senate unemployment test vote

SOURCE: AP/J. Scott Applewhite

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) walk to the Senate chamber for a procedural vote on legislation to renew long-term unemployment benefits.

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If media accounts—such as this, this, this, or even this—are correct, income inequality will be the pressing issue of the new year. I hope so, as this matter has long demanded national attention.

As Congress returned yesterday from its holiday recess, Senate and House Democrats and the White House coordinated their messages on income inequality. Starting today in what might be considered the kickoff of the matter, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) pushed a procedural vote to move forward with a plan to reinstate long-term unemployment assistance. Weather delayed this test vote on Monday, as Congress waited for more lawmakers to arrive in Washington, but if it ultimately proves successful, the measure will grant continued emergency assistance to the 1.3 million people still recovering from the recession and seeking work.

But that’s only the start. President Barack Obama will host a White House meeting later today with a group of unemployed Americans, and unions and progressive leaders are planning a Washington rally of unemployed people tomorrow to impress upon Capitol Hill officials the importance of doing more to help Americans secure work and a stronger economic foothold.

Such activism is long overdue. Over the past three decades, the United States has experienced a widening income gap at a level that hasn’t been seen since the 1920s. Such gross inequality isn’t healthy for a modern-day economy. Nor is it desired by a majority of Americans, who agree with the president and congressional Democrats that the administration and federal lawmakers should do more to help the poor. A recent Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, for example, showed that nearly two-thirds—63 percent—of those surveyed favored raising the national minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 per hour.

In an effort to lend some critical scholarship and credibility to arguments for more progressive efforts to balance the books, my colleague Heather Boushey, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, has recently expanded her duties to lead the new Washington Center for Equitable Growth, or WCEG, a research and grant-making organization that seeks to produce analysis of the structural changes in the nation’s economy that lead to inequality. WCEG describes its core mission as “helping to build a stronger bridge between academics and policymakers so that research is relevant, accessible, and informative to the policymaking process.”

Late as it might seem to those of us who have been alarmed by the growing gap between the haves and have-nots in the United States, perhaps this is the moment for our leaders to do the right thing. During the 2012 election, President Obama promised to focus on economic fairness if he was granted a second term. Indeed, the president’s success in painting challenger and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney as unconcerned and out of touch with the poor and unemployed is often cited as a deciding factor in the election.

Failure to act might prove equally ominous for those politicians who still haven’t learned this lesson. “Issues like job creation, minimum wage and unemployment insurance are going to weigh on the minds of voters far more than Obamacare by the time the 2014 elections roll around,” Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) recently told Politico.

Imagine that. Could Washington’s leaders actually be gathering the courage to come together on behalf of out-of-work Americans? What a way to start the new year.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.

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This is part of a regular column: Race and Beyond

For more from the same column, click here