President Barack Obama's task force on middle-class issues began its work Friday with a panel discussion on green jobs — and an announcement that the energy and housing departments would work together to spend $16 billion to weatherize homes and create a green industry for home energy efficiency.
Vice President Joe Biden, who chairs the task force, called the weatherization plan a "historic partnership to create thousands of jobs in the retro-fitting and weatherization industry."
The Energy and Housing and Urban Development departments agreed to coordinate home weatherization spending provided by the $787 economic stimulus bill that Obama signed last week.
HUD said it would put up $4.5 billion to renovate and upgrade public housing. The Energy Department will invest $5 billion in weatherization funds; $3.2 billion for a new Energy and Environment Block Grant that cities and states can use to retrofit homes; and $3.1 billion for a program that states can tap into.
The task force also heard from experts on the potential to create and fill green jobs.
Broadly defined as related to improving the environment, green jobs pay up to 20 percent more than other jobs, are more likely to be union jobs and likelier held by men, less so by minorities and city dwellers, according to a task force staff report released at Friday's meeting in Philadelphia at the University of Pennsylvania. Green jobs also are largely domestic jobs that cannot be shipped overseas.
$11 billion for smart grid
The $787 billion economic stimulus bill Obama signed last week includes billions to help create such jobs as installing solar panels and building wind turbines, which also is part of his goal to nudge the country away from dependence on foreign oil and toward reliance on renewable forms of energy.
Among the provisions: $11 billion for investments in a smart grid to create more than 3,000 miles of new or modernized high-tech transmission lines; $6 billion for a loan guarantee program to encourage banks to finance green investments; and $500 million for a "green job" training program to be run by the Department of Labor.
It is Obama's belief that such jobs will help raise living standards for middle-class families, who didn't fare well before the current economic downturn set in and are now feeling pinched along with millions of other people who have lost their jobs and homes, and watched retirement and college savings disappear.
Obama announced the panel last month at the White House. Its purpose is to recommend ways to boost the nation's middle class. It also will evaluate new and existing policies to determine whether they are helping or hurting the middle class.
"Quite simply, a strong middle class equals a strong America. We can't have one without the other," Biden said at the time. "It is our charge to get the middle class, the backbone of this country, up and running again."
$2,000 drop in middle-class incomes estimated
Jared Bernstein, the task force's executive director, said middle-class incomes have fallen by about $2,000 in real terms since the start of the decade and that violates a basic American tenet: that you'll get ahead if you work hard and your children will fare even better.
"Part of this election was about recognizing that a key part of any effective government's economic agenda had to be reconnecting the living standards of the middle class to that of the expanding economy once it starts expanding again," said Bernstein — Biden's chief economist and economic policy adviser.
"We are fortunate enough to be here now and we have a responsibility to carry through on that," he said Wednesday.
Labor unions welcomed the administration's focus on the middle class.
Anna Burger, who leads the Change to Win group of seven unions, said the task force shows government understands that rebuilding the American Dream and fixing the economy means "creating good jobs with a wage that can support a family, benefits that can keep them healthy and a secure and dignified retirement."
Bill Samuel, the AFL-CIO's director of governmental affairs, said the makeup of the task force increases its visibility, even though the panel is only advisory.
"This is a high-profile task force with someone in charge who is really committed to this and has been throughout his entire career," Samuel said. "So we don't see this as a flash in the pan."
Biden was joined at the meeting by several Cabinet members and others on the task force, including the secretaries of energy, transportation, education, agriculture, and housing and urban development, labor secretary-designate Hilda Solis and Melody Barnes, Obama's domestic policy chief.
Background on the task force is online at www.astrongermiddleclass.gov.