Earlier this month, the government released new data showing the unemployment rate for March was virtually unchanged at 7.6 percent. The recovery continues, but the economy only created 88,000 new jobs last month. And although the Black unemployment rate fell slightly, it still remained unacceptably high at 13.3 percent, compared to 6.7 percent for whites. Nearly 12 million Americans remain unemployed.
But in the time since those warning signs were released, I've hardly heard a peep from most lawmakers about the need for action on jobs. I've heard a lot of talk the past week about gun control and immigration, and both of those issues are important and deserve attention. This is not an either/or proposal. Government has to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. But unemployment is also important, and yet there's no public discussion at all about doing anything about it.
In the past two weeks, Republicans in Congress had time to pass a resolution honoring the late Margaret Thatcher, call for an investigation of Jay-Z and Beyoncé's trip to Cuba, and lecture Black college students about the need for voter ID laws. Next they might be holding hearings on LL Cool J's "Accidental Racist" duet with Brad Paisley. But still no time to pass a jobs bill.
Democrats aren't entirely blameless either. Although many of them want to do something about unemployment, they've been outmaneuvered by a GOP message machine that has moved the debate away from jobs to deficit reduction. Although President Obama's new $3.7 trillion budget calls for investments in education and infrastructure that would help create jobs, when he sat down for dinner with Senate Republicans this week, the main topic of conversation was about reaching a budget and debt deal, not about jobs.
Maybe Americans didn't make themselves clear last year. Voters told pollsters during last year's campaign that unemployment was the most important issue facing the country. And today, even after five months of Washington's obsession on deficits, that hasn't changed. Voters still say creating jobs is their top priority.
Obama could stand on solid ground by changing the conversation away from deficit reduction and start pushing for his long-stalled jobs bill. In fact, 91 percent of Democrats, 76 percent of Independents, and 63 percent of Republicans support "a federal government program that would put people to work on urgent infrastructure repairs," according to a recent Gallup poll.
And yet, the two biggest legislative crises of 2013 — the fiscal cliff and the sequester — actually slow down job growth and economic recovery by raising taxes on working Americans and cutting government spending that helps support hundreds of thousands of jobs. We're moving in exactly the wrong direction.
It's time for Congress to pay attention. Maybe when politicians in Washington finally start losing their jobs they'll realize Americans want Washington to help them to save their own.
Keith Boykin is a New York Times best-selling author and former White House aide to President Clinton. He attended Harvard Law School with President Barack Obama and currently serves as a TV political commentator. He writes political commentary for BET.com each week.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
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