Where’s the plan?
It is the half way point in the debate season and commentary on what was said, what should have been said and how much people care about what has been said is flowing thick and fast. Glaring by its absence in either the first presidential or the vice-presidential debate is a plan for jobs. Unemployment rates have been mentioned, the need for jobs ceded, though what this actually means in terms of policy is unclear. The middle class are the battleground for this election; a plan for work should be front and centre, if it’s lurking in the background it’s hard to spot.
Way back in May Jim Tankersley (economic correspondent for the National Journal) identified a gap in both candidates’ position on jobs – the lack of a plan. He contrasted the situation with the 2010 UK general election when welfare reform and work was a central part of both party platforms. Tankersley’s critique resonated with me. The absence of a similar discussion was all the more confusing given there has been a plan of sorts (American Jobs Act) and attempts at passing it have been divisive to say the least (Justin Wolfers captured liberal frustration in an article for the Guardian this summer). Even more recently Senate Republicans blocked a Veterans Jobs Bill.
There is a clear difference in approaches to the problems of unemployment, instability in the labor market, skills and education. Yet questions about jobs at the debate last week led to answers about tax. Last night, neither vice presidential candidate put forward a plan. During the campaign questions about work end up with answers about teh veracity of statistics, partisanship and the size of government. Despite stalling social mobility, educational divides, the changing nature of the labor market, high unemployment and labor market inactivity, ways in which work can provide solutions are not being harnessed or explored by either side – at least not visibly.
Recent research from Brookings has demonstrated the value of the safety net in reducing poverty – but real change comes when people are able to escape the vicious work/welfare/work cycle. This needs a coherent approach to public policy – one both sides are yet to clearly articulate. It has to understand the narrative arc of a life and use safety nets not only to catch those that fall but also support them to get back on their own two feet again. There needs to be a jobs plan – and at the very least it needs to be part of the economy plan, the education plan and the skills plan. To paraphrase both candidates from last night – it’s no good saying there will be a job creator in the White House, show us the policies.