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On jobs and safety net, lawmakers must focus on hard-hit minorities

By Angela Glover Blackwell, Special to CNN
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Angela Glover Blackwell says blacks and Latinos hardest hit by unemployment
  • She says debt deal leaves out unemployment insurance, job-creating investments
  • Failure to do so will cost economy millions of jobs, gamble with U.S. future, she says
  • Blackwell: Leaders must focus on robust, inclusive jobs agenda to ensure no one left behind
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Editor's note: Angela Glover Blackwell is founder and CEO of PolicyLink, a national research and advocacy organization that aims to advance economic and social equity. She is also a member of the White House Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, and co-author of "Uncommon Common Ground: Race and America's Future" (W.W. Norton and Co.)

(CNN) -- Last month, the Center for American Progress highlighted the stark and disproportionate impact of the ongoing jobs crisis on people of color, with unemployment among blacks reaching more than 16%, compared with more than 11% for Latinos and more than 8% for whites.

Simultaneously, poverty rates in communities of color remain at an all-time high, especially among children. More than one third of today's African-American and Latino youth under the age of 18 are growing up in poverty.

When combined with the projected loss of more than a quarter of $1 trillion in black and Latino wealth between 2009 and 2012 due to the foreclosure crisis, what we're left with is an entire generation of Americans living without the security of a decent living wage, quality education, affordable health care or home ownership.

This is a crisis level that calls for comprehensive strategies concentrated on creating jobs now and making smart, sustainable investments that will stimulate growth and secure our nation's economic future.

Yet the Budget Control Act of 2011, signed into law this week after a lengthy, divisive debate in Congress, missed an important opportunity to address jobs and unemployment. Instead it focused on cuts that would erode funding for critical public investments and safety-net programs that offer much-needed support to America's poor and working-class families.

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The bill specifically failed to mention two vital programs that will expire by year's end: unemployment insurance and the 2% payroll holiday tax for the middle class. According to the Economic Policy Institute, failure to make these crucial extensions could:

• Cost our economy close to 1 million jobs next year

• Lead to $45 billion less in unemployment assistance for about 3.8 million unemployed workers who currently depend on it, which would result in $70 billion less in a 2012 economy and an estimated 528,000 fewer jobs

• Decrease funding substantially for food stamps, Medicare and Pell Grants, and make a yet unnamed $900 billion in discretionary cuts to programs that many low-income people and communities of color heavily depend on for affordable access to healthy food, higher education and health care.

It is deeply disappointing to see our leaders in Washington slashing services at the very moment they should be working tirelessly to maximize job growth and set the foundation for long-term economic prosperity, productivity and global competiveness, especially in communities hit first and worst by the recession.

They are making a gamble with our nation's future that we cannot afford.

By 2042, people of color will be the majority in America; already the majority of youth under the age of 2 are of color. As the country's demographic transformation continues accelerating, the framework we use to shape and develop future economic policies, particularly those affecting low-income people and people of color, must also evolve.

Such a shift will lead to just and fair inclusion, elevating equity as the nation's growth model.

By recognizing the untapped potential that exists in these communities we can create targeted economic development policies at the local, regional and national levels that will spur job creation, foster new businesses and prepare low-income people and people of color to work in and grow new industries.

Already, federal programs such as Youth Build and the Strong Cities, Strong Communities Initiative link low-wage workers and small-business owners in underserved areas to essential tools and resources that support meaningful employment, local innovation and entrepreneurship.

And the Promise Neighborhoods Initiative, for which the Obama administration has allocated $30 million, will wrap poor children across America in education, health and social supports from the cradle to college to career, to ensure that our next generations are equipped to compete and succeed in the 21st-century economy.

When it comes to maximizing job creation, the kinds of investments we make are also crucial. For every dollar invested in public transit, for example, our economy gains 31% more jobs than it would for the construction of new roads and highways.

We must push for investments in transportation, infrastructure and regional economic development that will connect low-wage workers to jobs and set the foundation for sustained economic growth and competitiveness.

Such investments include the establishment of a $30 billion National Infrastructure Bank, which would provide loans and grants to support individual projects and broader activities that will vastly improve our nation's transportation systems.

By intentionally focusing on equality, we can develop a robust, inclusive jobs agenda that will ensure no one gets left behind. But doing so will require bold action from decisive leaders, and a committed and engaged public to push them toward action that yields measurable, equitable results.

Despite the debt-ceiling agreement's myriad disappointments, we still have an opportunity to build a final budget that includes equitable solutions and policies to move our nation forward. We must seize it now before it's too late.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Angela Grover Blackwell.