Greening the recession

By Michelle Chen May 20, 2009

Underneath the headlines trumpeting signs of "recovery" are sobering figures on the bottom rungs of the economy. The Economic Policy Institute projects calculates that high rates of joblessness have resulted in a 7.8 million deficit in payroll employment. Between 2009 and mid-2010, the unemployment rate is expected to climb from about 13 percent to 18 percent for Blacks, and Latino and Asian workers will see similar spikes. More than half of Black children will be living in poverty, up from 35 percent in 2007. At the same time, the Obama administration’s recovery task force says it will focus on the creation of green jobs in the clean energy sectors. The initiative dovetails with the racial and economic justice agendas of community-based organizations. But C. Nicole Mason of New York University’s Women of Color Policy Network predicts the recovery resources coming out of Washington won’t trickle down to those who most need it:

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 is supposed to create or save 3.7 million jobs by 2010. However, due to the under-representation of Blacks and Latinos in targeted occupations, only 917,675 jobs will go to those communities. And because the unemployment rate is so high among Blacks and Latinos, the jobs created will do little to improve their economic situation…. And with all of the talk of green collar jobs and how they will potentially create millions of new jobs across sectors, African Americans and Latinos comprise less than 25 percent of those employed in green occupations. As a result, it is unlikely that those jobs will do much to change their situation.

Many of the most prominent green workforce initiatives, while they pack a lot of political punch, have been relatively small-scale pilot projects. So if the stimulus is little more than a quick salve for the crisis–and won’t even start to correct inequities that existed long before the recession hit–is the envisioned green-collar stimulus largely aspirational? Even some green-jobs advocates are tempering their hopes. In the American Prospect, Kevin Doyle of the New England Clean Energy Council Workforce Development Group warned,

“The idea that somehow renewable-energy companies will behave any different than any other existing energy companies seems unrealistic… it’s going to be an uphill battle to get people who’ve had barriers to employment to suddenly get access, and this new moment only makes it nominally better."

Groups like the Apollo Alliance and Green for All have laid major groundwork for a structural transition toward an equitable, greener economy. Yet for the emergent coalitions of labor, business and grassroots activists, channeling the political energy into concrete gains requires that communities match every bit of trickle-down funding with a lot of ground-up organizing. Image: Green-collar action in the South Bronx (Green for All via Flickr)