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Economist calls for justice in work force


7:00 A.M. EST March 16, 2011 | NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)

Julianne Malveaux, president of the United Methodist-affiliated Bennett College for Women, speaks about economic justice. UMNS photos by Heather Hahn.
Julianne Malveaux, president of the United Methodist-affiliated Bennett College for Women, speaks about economic justice. UMNS photos by Heather Hahn.
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If people truly lived out faith’s calling to love their neighbor, the U.S. economy would look much different, said economist Julianne Malveaux.

The MIT-educated economist spoke March 11 at Scarritt-Bennett, a conference and retreat center owned by Women's Division, United Methodist Board of Global Ministries. Her topic was “The Future of Work: A Perspective on Economic Justice.”

“The economy is one of the stages on which we live our faith,” she told an audience of about 200. “Are we actually living a faith that talks about opportunities for the poor and vulnerable? A faith that talks about doing unto others as you would have them do unto you?”

Malveaux is the 15th president of United Methodist-affiliated Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C. She is also an associate member of St. Matthews United Methodist Church there.

She pointed to Bernie Madoff, the former stockbroker now in prison for defrauding thousands of investors, as an example of an industrialist who lost sight of his neighbors in the pursuit of profit.

To heal the still-hurting economy and restore good jobs, Malveaux argued that the nation must restore a sense of economic justice and address the widening income gap.

“We need similar treatment for similar situations,” she said. “The fact is there is no economic justice in our society. The labor market data suggests we are not committed to ensuring similar outcomes for different populations.”

Unemployment blues

Malveaux offered some sobering statistics. At the current rate of job creation, it will take the United States until 2019 to return to the 5 percent unemployment rate last seen in December 2007.

In February, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the unemployment rate as 8.9 percent for the nation as a whole. But that rate breaks down to 15.3 percent for African Americans, 11.6 percent for Latinos and 8 percent for whites.

Those figures, though, do not capture the full picture of the nation’s job woes. They don’t count people who have given up the job search or people who work part time but want full-time employment. Malveaux estimates that 24.8 million people are underemployed in the United States.

“You’re looking at the notion that unemployment has now become the norm,” she said. “It’s something that we live with.”

Just as there are fewer jobs, there are fewer good jobs, she said.

Julianne Malveaux signs copies of her new book, “Surviving and Thriving: 365 Facts in Black Economic History”.
Julianne Malveaux signs copies of her new book, “Surviving and Thriving: 365 Facts in Black Economic History.”
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Increasingly, jobs do not provide a wage large enough to support a family and they do not come with health benefits. Fewer than 60 percent of all Americans have pensions, which provide defined benefits in retirement. Social Security and personal savings are more important than ever. Consequently, she said, many baby boomers expect to retire at a much older age than their parents did.

Entrepreneurship, unions and tax incentives

To get a job, Americans increasingly will need to create their own as entrepreneurs, she said. That points to a need for more training for young people and other individuals who are interested in starting businesses.

But not everyone, she acknowledged, has “the entrepreneurial gene.”

For many U.S. workers, unions have historically been “a leveling force in our society,” she said. “They provide people with very little individual power with a sense of collective power.”

However, unions have been falling out of favor since the federal Labor-Management Relations Act (also known as the Taft-Hartley Act) was enacted in 1947. The law prohibits certain kinds of strikes and allows states to pass “right-to-work laws,” which prohibit agreements between unions and employers making membership or union dues a condition of employment.

In the past 50 years, unions have dwindled in the private sector, and now state legislatures across the country are weighing plans to limit public-sector unions.

Malveaux would like to see an increase in collective bargaining across the work force as well as tax incentives to prevent companies from shipping U.S. jobs overseas.

“Why can’t we talk about taxing those companies who leave the United States and hire excessively in other countries?” she said. “They do it because it’s cheaper. But we can make it more expensive.”

She called for a cross-racial grassroots movement of the employed and the unemployed to work toward economic justice.

A number of United Methodists in Malveaux’s audience described her speech as inspiring.

“She gave us hope that we can still play a part in gathering at the grassroots level,” said the Rev. Harold L. Martin, pastor of Clark Memorial United Methodist Church in Nashville.

*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service.

News media contact: Heather Hahn, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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