Progressive Voices

To create jobs, start by not eliminating jobs

With unemployment near 10 percent, it’s hard to believe anyone would say North Carolina needs fewer jobs. But that’s exactly what voices on the right continue to argue.

The most recent example is state GOP chairman Robin Hayes. When North Carolina’s most recent joblessness numbers were released, we saw a spike in unemployment driven by layoffs of 7,600 public sector workers.

His response? “I hope [layoffs] increase,” Hayes told the Associated Press. “Republicans were elected on the basis of rightsizing government, making it smaller. This is the first indication, now that Republicans are in office, that this is beginning to occur.”

This is a drum that the far right has been beating for some time. Hayes is right about one thing: the loss of thousands of jobs is a direct result of slash-and-burn budget policies.

But why crow about the loss of thousands of jobs, as if it were somehow an achievement? The answer isn’t about economics. It’s ideology.

Public sector workers educate our children, keep our communities safe, and perform all manner of services that make North Carolina better. Conservatives tend to demonize these public workers because, in their view, government jobs are inferior to private sector jobs.

This misses two critical points. First, in a time of high unemployment, keeping people at work is desperately needed to keep the economy’s lifeblood flowing. Without income, laid off workers can’t support local businesses through spending.

Second, a thriving public sector supports a thriving private sector. The experiences of other states show us a close relationship between lost public sector jobs and dwindling total employment. This makes sense: the last thing a laid-off private sector worker needs is a laid-off public sector worker to compete with.

We’ve seen the evidence here at home. Since June 2010, North Carolina has lost 20,000 public employees. This has nearly wiped out the already-anemic 28,900 private sector job created. If laying off public employees really helps the private sector grow, where are the jobs?

When you’re in a hole, you stop digging. When you want to create jobs, the first step is to stop massive layoffs. That’s the most important task lawmakers can take up in the here and now.

The real answer, though, is to re-invest in North Carolina. For the jobs of the future, we need a well-trained, highly-educated workforce. That means high-quality schools and affordable community college and public universities.

Naturally, those institutions need people to staff those positions – but that’s not a bug, it’s a feature. Making these investments keeps people employed in the short term and boosts total employment in the long term.

If this session is really all about jobs – and it should be, even if it hasn’t been so far – we have to be honest about what really creates employment. So-called “rightsizing” of public sector actually downsizes economic growth, shrinking the pie for all of us.

How far down this road are we willing to go? How many thousands of people will lose their livelihood before we acknowledge that putting people out of work isn’t the best strategy for putting people back to work?

To create jobs, let’s start by not eliminating jobs. It sounds like common sense, and that’s because it is.

Jeff Shaw is the Director of Communications at the North Carolina Justice Center