Economists say the economic stimulus package, President Obama’s first major legislative victory, is working. According to the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit Washington think tank, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act has generated more than 2 million jobs since its passage one year ago, including about 9,000 new jobs in Minnesota. More, EPI says the Recovery Act has helped slow the rate at which the economy is losing jobs, from upwards of 700,000 per month in the waning days of the Bush administration to a near halt. Without the stimulus package, unemployment in the U.S. – at 9.7 percent in January – would exceed 11 percent.
Nationwide numbers are nice, but for local workers and their families, the proof is in the paycheck. And many of those workers are wondering: Where are the stimulus-funded jobs in my community?
St. Paul landed a slice of the stimulus pie Wednesday, when the U.S. Department of Transportation announcement it would award the Ramsey County Regional Railroad Authority a $35 million grant to redevelop historic Union Depot in Lowertown.
The county purchased the 33-acre depot site last year, and it has already invested more than $40 million into the redevelopment project. Planners envision Union Depot as a “multimodal transit hub” connecting high-speed rail – to Chicago or Duluth – with commuter and light-rail lines like the Central Corridor.
Rep. Alice Hausman of St. Paul, who chairs the House Capital Investment Committee, said the Union Depot “is part of an entire system that will bring together new ways for people to move from place to place.”
Building that system, of course, means jobs for skilled trades workers. With the $35 million grant in hand, the Railway Authority, which is working with M.A. Mortenson Construction on project design, expects about 1,300 construction workers to be on the Union Depot site by this fall, provided everything stays on track.
That’s music to labor leaders’ ears. Harry Melander, president of the Minnesota Building and Construction Trades Council, said the project has the potential “to put thousands of skilled workers back on the job.”
For Minnesota AFL-CIO President Shar Knutson, the announcement was particularly sweet. She began pushing for renovation of Union Depot years ago, before being elected to the state’s top labor job.
“Getting the Union Depot project going is something I pushed hard for while heading the St. Paul Regional Labor Federation and continued to do at the Minnesota AFL-CIO,” Knutson said. “Projects like these are a great step toward economic recovery for Minnesotans.”
Still, the $35 million for Union Depot is a drop in the pond when it comes to the $787 billion stimulus package. So how else is the Recovery Act helping working families in the East Metro?
Melissa Jamrock, an outreach specialist in U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum’s office, pointed to a number of stimulus-funded projects, programs and grants throughout Minnesota’s 4th Congressional District. They include:
- The COPS Hiring Recovery Program in St. Paul and Washington County. The program, which awarded grants to law enforcement agencies in cities, counties or other levels of government, enabled St. Paul to hire 28 new police officers last year.
- Energy efficiency. The St. Paul Public Housing Authority, Jamrock said, received about $17 million in grants to improve the energy efficiency of its high-rise apartment buildings.
- Money for public schools. Jamrock said the Recovery Act provided much-needed funding for programs like Title I – an initiative to improve poor students’ achievement in the classroom – in cash-strapped school districts, helping prevent layoffs.
- Youth employment and job-training programs, like Americorps.
Jamrock is quick to point out that the Recovery Act was about more than creating jobs. A main thrust of the $787 billion legislation was strengthening the safety net for families and workers hit hard by the recession.
“One thing people forget is … the money for expanded unemployment insurance that was in (the stimulus),” Jamrock said. “There were extensions to food-assistance programs. These are things that were in there that are helping people through these economic times.”
Jamrock also stresses that the full effect of the Recovery Act remains to be seen because, as last week’s grant to Union Depot shows, much of the stimulus funding has yet to be allocated. The bill, she said, provided block funding to agencies like the Department of Transportation or the Pollution Control Agency, and those agencies are just now beginning to dole out the money in the form of grants to projects throughout the country.
Was the stimulus bill perfect? No. Was it enough? Probably not. But had Congress not acted a year ago, more Americans would be out of work and the economy might still be hemorrhaging hundreds of thousands of jobs per month.
“We were in tough straights,” Jamrock said. “We did what we needed to do. Now we’re seeing where maybe more work needs to be done to help stabilize things.”
Michael Moore edits The Union Advocate, the official publication of the St. Paul Regional Labor Federation. Learn more at www.stpaulunions.org