Mutual aid remains important in tough times

Mutual aid remains important in tough times

- in Progressive Voices

These are tough times for the jobless. The recovery is weak and is not generating enough jobs so far. 

What are we to do address our citizens' employment worries and realities?

To start, there are limits to what a single state do. North Carolina cannot print money or run a long-term budget deficit. The federal government, in contrast, could and should be doing much more. In particular, the economic stimulus package was much too small, relative to the depth and scale of the downturn. 

Indeed, right now, deflation is more likely than inflation. Or, we could be hit by a "double-dip" recession. The economy is sluggish enough for these events to transpire. But extra and significant fiscal actions are unlikely. Unfortunately, too many Americans have bought into the inaccurate conservative talking point that the federal deficit is already too large and do not grasp the basics of Keynsian macroeconomics. I am not going to hold my breath in anticipation of these things changing in the near term.

For now, our Congressional delegation should continue to support extensions of unemployment insurance, akin to what was just passed in late July, 2010.

More can also be done to educate and encourage North Carolinians to apply for and take advantage of existing federal benefits, such as Food Stamps. The proposed information technology-based "NC Benefit Bank" should make the processes of understanding what is available, determining eligibility, and applying for aid much easier and more customer-friendly.

But getting government to do more for unemployed workers and their families is not the only answer. We don't have to sit on our hands and wait. There is a rich tradition of voluntarism and mutual aid that we can draw on. American and North Carolina history abound with examples – from food pantries to benefit societies, cooperatives to job clubs and a variety of mutual support groups.

Today is no different. Such efforts can often respond with more care and compassion than the impersonal bureaucracies that deliver our government-funded safety nets. Efforts run by clubs and churches may find themselves dealing with their own neighbors and members, which can further inspire and motivate.  (But, of course: "small is not always beautiful." Sometimes, it's disorganized, unprofessional, under-funded, and unable to take advantage of scale economies.)

What's important about all this is that such grassroots initiatives have a chance to break down the isolation of the jobless and prevent them from just giving up on landing a job and becoming a so-called "discouraged" worker. The danger is that, despite the long work experience of many of today's jobless, they over time begin to psychologically resemble those that have had few or no jobs. 

This must be avoided, because it deprives us of their contributions of talent and effort, while adding to what has been called the supply of things we do not want – low incomes and little signs of entrepreneurial initiative, increased spending on human services and income maintenance, falling savings, widespread hopelessness, growing crime, drug and alcohol addiction, isolation, and other such woes.

In short, we are not on our own. We can extend a helping hand, sharing our money and ourselves with those that have had bad luck. The list of possibilities is long and includes: helping the jobless with employment networking; increasing the financial literacy of the members of a congregation or club, weatherizing homes and in one's community, creating reading and/or political discussion and action groups. It would not be hard to establish web-based clearinghouses of such innovations.

As author and economic development expert Dr. Kenneth Wagner cleverly described in a wonderful and still relevant mid-1990's book "How You Can Help Create Jobs in Your Area.: More Than 100 Actions You and Your Friends Can Take," there are dozens of actions that folks in various professions and occupations can take, including:  accountants, cab drivers, business owners, church members, educators, engineers, landscape architects, and even school board members.

In short, obstructionist politicians may be blocking the kind of aggressive economic stimulus our economy needs, but this doesn't mean that average North Carolinians need to standby and simply wait for the "invisible hand" or giant corporations to act. Intentional, public action – even on a modest scale – can make a difference and is worth pursuing.

William Schweke is a Senior Fellow at CFED in their Durham, NC office.