24 June 2010

Tired Americans Want Government Help

Deepak Bhargava and Sara K. Gould
By Deepak Bhargava and Sara K. Gould

The tea party movement insists that a growing majority of Americans want less government and endorse an "everyone for themselves" mentality.

But these tea-party-infused sound bites turn out to have little to do with most Americans' actual beliefs.

A majority of people want government to take a larger and stronger role in making the economy work for average Americans, according to a new nationwide poll conducted by Lake Research Partners for the Center for Community Change and the Ms. Foundation for Women. Roughly 52 percent of respondents agreed with that statement.

This government role could include creating jobs and training programs, helping cut health care costs and combating corporate greed.

These attitudes were particularly pronounced among groups hit hardest by the recession. For example, 66 percent of African-American women and 68 percent of Latinas want government to play a larger role. In April, unemployment reached 13.7 percent among African-American women and 11.1 percent for Latinas.

Those polled are less concerned about the federal budget deficit than they are about rising health care costs, lack of jobs with family-sustaining wages and the affordability of daily expenses such as food and gas.

How do we interpret these findings, given such persistent voices to the contrary?

It is true that most Americans view individual responsibility as vitally important for improving one?s life. But this is not the "everyone for themselves" individualism of the tea party movement.

For a majority of those surveyed, individual responsibility cannot be separated from responsibility toward one's family, community and the economy as a whole. Nine out of 10 agree that government and corporations should join with individuals to place the common good above greed.

The vast majority questioned the values our economy rewards, particularly the "everyone for themselves" mentality. When given a choice of values they want the economy to reward, they ranked "everyone for themselves" last. Unfortunately, they also said that value best describes the economy today.

This seems to contradict recent polls that show Americans have all but given up on government's ability to do the right thing. Most of these surveys, however, reflect a disconnect from a vast and amorphous federal government.

At the local level, people clearly feel differently about the governments in their own communities and the vital role they play in promoting healthy and productive families.

It is also clear, despite messages from the far right, that most Americans do not think government should withdraw support for communities in need.

Three out of four people surveyed say policies that could create more jobs with decent wages and benefits for low-income families are important to them personally. Even more -- 88 percent -- agree they would be good for the economy.

Our data underscore what many Americans have been saying for some time about an "economic recovery" that they consider has helped Wall Street and bypassed them.

For large segments of the population, the recession shows little signs of abating. Slightly less than half of Americans still worry that they, or someone in their household, will be out of a job in the next year. More than half worry that they, or someone in their household, will not work enough hours to make ends meet.

These views are most evident among those hurting long before the recession began -- particularly single mothers and minority women.

Though the downturn has been labeled a "mancession?" -- because of the large number of men who lost jobs -- recent evidence shows women are actually faring worse.

From October 2009 to March 2010, according to a Joint Economic Committee report, women lost 22,000 jobs while men gained 260,000 -- as more private-sector employers started hiring again.

And women, who make up 60 percent of state and local government employees, are hit hard by the state fiscal crisis and resulting layoffs.

Latinas also have been hard hit. Two-thirds said their circumstances have been affected by the country's economic woes, and more than half said they or someone in their household has lost a job in the past year.

These findings underscore the need for bold action to address structural problems that lead to long-term unemployment.

That means passing legislation such as the Local Jobs for America Act, introduced last week in the Senate and earlier this year in the House.

The bill, which could save or create 750,000 jobs in local nonprofits and governments, targets funds to communities with high rates of unemployment and poverty.

It also means addressing fundamental inequities. Three out of four of those polled, for example, say that equal pay and benefits for men and women are personally important to them. Even more say such parity is a vital component of a healthy economy.

As our poll demonstrates, this is not the time for political leaders to skimp on investments that could bring large payoffs for families, communities and our economy.

Taking a stand against government spending may play well for the tea party but is unlikely to play as well among those wondering when the economic recovery will come to their neighborhood.

Deepak Bhargava is executive director of the Center for Community Change; Sara K. Gould is president and chief executive officer of the Ms. Foundation for Women.

This piece originally appeared on Politico.

Learn more about the Community Voices on the Economy project.

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