Creating the Jobs We All Need Now

By Becky O'Malley
Monday August 09, 2010 - 11:01:00 PM
Congressman Barney Frank and San Lorenzo Valley School District high school government teacher Cindy Martinez, a big fan who asked him to pose with her in the halls of Congress last month. (Full disclosure: She's my niece.}
Congressman Barney Frank and San Lorenzo Valley School District high school government teacher Cindy Martinez, a big fan who asked him to pose with her in the halls of Congress last month. (Full disclosure: She's my niece.}

Last week I was having lunch in my favorite corner store/café in Berkeley when a mother came in with two tiny boys, one about four, the other in a stroller. She herself was a compact person, probably under five feet tall, with big brown eyes and long black hair—she looked like she came from one of the indigenous populations of Mexico or Central America. Altogether, they were a handsome and cheerful family group. 

After a bit of consultation in Spanish, the older boy selected a very small bag of pretzels from a rack, paid for them himself with coins his mother provided, and shared them with his baby brother. As an experienced grandmother, I know that pretzels are the wholesome choice—inexpensive, no high-fructose corn sweetener, no transfats, but just crunchy and salty enough to make kids feel like they’re having a treat. Clearly, an adept parent, with goodhumored and well-brought-up boys. 

After they left the proprietor rolled his eyes. “Refugees,” he said. “From Arizona. It’s awful.” 

He’s an immigrant himself, from the Middle East, and not just from a single country or from one ethnic group, but with family ties and friends among several. He has strong opinions about right and wrong on the political scene, and has followed with interest and often disgust the Planet’s interactions with those who have tried to suppress points of view on Israel with which they disagree. And as a proud naturalized American citizen, he’s shocked to see refugees in his adopted country. 

As a proud native-born American and a long-time Californian, I too am ashamed of Arizona. I’m especially ashamed of California’s Harpy Twins, Meg and Carly, who are eagerly talking out of both sides of their mouths, saying one thing in Spanish-language ads and another in English about the Arizona law which attempts to legalize hunting down anyone suspected of being an immigrant without documentation,. Meg was recently caught in the act by a noxious Southern California talk radio show. 

This is not an easy problem to solve. As things get worse to the south of us, desperate people will continue to migrate north, despite international borders and perilous journeys. Predictions about the effect of climate change suggest that as the world gets warmer South-North movement will inevitably increase, regardless of legal barriers. 

Making intelligent plans for what can be done to handle the situation is much impeded by what appears to be the built-in human tendency to xenophobia, the fear of strangers. Somewhere on my bookshelves is a rudely printed and bound book from the mid-nineteenth century, a compendium of the theory and practice of the Know-Nothings. They were the intellectual ancestors of the kind of people who now call up talk radio to express their fears and prejudices against immigrants, documented or undocumented, Spanish-speaking or otherwise. The designated villains in this scurrilous piece were some of my family’s ancestors, German and Irish, who were then settling legally in the United States. The tune is familiar, only the words have changed. 

It’s disheartening to see Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who can sometimes pass for a civilized person, calling for repeal of the constitutional provision which grants citizenship to anyone born in the United States. He’s suggesting that we follow the policies of the notorious Prussian-German principle of Jus sanguinis, or law of blood, under which people acquire citizenship only if a parent is a citizen, regardless of where they were born. 

In modern Germany this has now been somewhat modified, but there’s still a way to go. In Germany Turkish migrants still do much of the hard work without being voters. It’s no accident that the 9/11 plot was hatched in among the disenfranchised in Hamburg’s Islamic neighborhoods. 

Americans too have expected the most recently arrived to do jobs they themselves shun. Harriet Martineau, an English visitor to the United States in 1834, noted that the British embassy at the time was forced to hire foreigners to do their domestic work wearing livery, the traditional servants’ uniform: 

“One laughable peculiarity at the British legation was the confusion of tongues among the servants, who ask you to take fish, flesh, and fowl in Spanish, Italian, German, Dutch, Irish, or French. No American will wear livery, and there is no reason why any American should. But the British ambassador must have livery servants….[so] he is obliged to pick up his domestics from among foreigners …” 

Americans today, including those of us descended from the kind of people who waited on table at the British legation in 1834, still depend on “foreigners” to do our dirty work. This is partly because employers are looking for people who will work cheaply, of course. 

A letter writer in this very issue suggests that African Americans, whose people have been in this country as long as most European Americans or longer, are being passed over for desirable construction jobs in favor of recent immigrants, and that does happen. But the migrants among us are also expected to do a huge number of jobs which native-born Americans consider undesirable. 

I’m not a member of the “What Has He Done for Me Lately” crowd of Obama observers, but I do think dealing with migration is one of the big unsolved problems which his administration has yet to tackle in any meaningful way. It’s linked, as our letter writer suggests, to the problem usually discussed under the rubric of “jobs”, which is not about just jobs per se, not just any old kind of jobs, but about the lack of solid working-class jobs that can be the basis for family life. 

William Gross, a prominent spokesperson for the bond-selling industry, was reported in Sunday’s New York Times as believing that “it’s time for the government to spend tens of billions on new infrastructure projects to put people to work and stimulate demand.” His firm is heavily into municipal bonds at the moment, so it’s not surprising he would say that, since bonds are used to fund infrastructure building projects, with profit to the bond-sellers. 

But the ecological consequences of adding oceans of new concrete and forests of steel to our environment are serious, and the construction industry’s increasing reliance on imported workers, as our letter writer notes, is another problem. Meanwhile, our schools are laying off teachers and classroom aides at an appalling rate, as well as valuable service workers like police officers and home health aides. 

Wouldn’t it be better, instead of paying to build more hard-wired stuff that we really don’t need, to expand people-based jobs that we do need? Instead of building more and more government-funded construction boondoggles like concrete islands for Bus Rapid Transit, a fourth automobile tunnel through the East Bay hills and environmentally wasteful ferries (which uses more energy per passenger mile than cars) how about just training and hiring more bus drivers so that our transit system will actually work? 

How about hiring willing immigrants, people like the mother I saw at my corner store, to help out in class rooms and assist our disabled citizens, who are losing the state subsidy which has paid for their attendants? 

In one of the most juvenile and vapid stories I’ve ever heard on the increasingly marginal National Public Radio (“Interrupted Recess Brings Bickering Back To House”), Andrea Seabrook reported that the house is back in session to reconcile a bill passed by the Senate which will fund public service pay by closing some high-end tax loopholes. Or rather, I figured out what’s happening by reading the comments, since as the headline indicates, Seabrook focused on the he-said-she-said stuff as if she were reporting a tennis match instead of on government taking care of business. 

It appears that House Democrats, led by often-dissed but frequently effective Speaker Pelosi, are on the right track. Fortunately, I was able to find a relatively intelligent report of what’s actually going on at TheHill.com website


“House Financial Services Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) on Tuesday disputed the rumor that lawmakers were upset by having to return to Washington during their August break to vote on a $26.1 billion state-aid bill. “ ‘When we heard that the Senate had passed the bill, people were delighted,’ he said Tuesday. ‘It means you're gonna get funds for states. You're going to have firefighters, teachers, public works employees back.’ 

“The bill provides $10 billion to education funding and $16 billion to Medicaid. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) contends the legislation will save or create 319,000 jobs, which includes teachers, police officers and firefighters.” 


One bill won’t do it all, but at least it looks like a step in the right direction. We’ll see if it passes. 

P.S. Ms. Martinez, the teacher pictured above with Barney Frank, has informed me that it did indeed pass this afternoon!