Vice President Joe Biden speaks to delegates at the National Urban League Conference on Thursday morning at the Duke Energy Center. / The Enquirer/Cara Owsley
CINCINNATI -- Seven to 10 years ago, Vice President Joe Biden told National Urban League delegates Thursday, he would not have been able to present such an optimistic message.
But today, Biden said, the United States is poised for job growth that will pay families a living wage, even as challenges remain to closing opportunity gaps.
"There have to be jobs to fill in order to meet the needs of the community," Biden said in a 40-minute address. "We are better positioned than any country in the world."
Thursday was the second of four days for the 104th conference of the National Urban League, expected to draw up to 8,700 at Duke Energy Convention Center. The convention marked the national group's first return to Cincinnati since it bowed out in 2003, honoring a boycott called to raise attention to racial issues.
Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley, mayors of other cities and Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, also spoke Thursday.
Biden opened by listing accomplishments made for African-Americans and low-income Americans since the Lyndon Johnson-era War on Poverty. He said 10 times as many African-Americans are in college and 10 times as many hold elected public office.
Then he turned his remarks to what he called "the franchise," the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
"There has been progress, but something happened on the way to the 2008 election," Biden said of the law that gave African-Americans the right to vote. "The franchise is under siege."
He said 83 efforts in 29 states have sought to "limit access to the ballot box. It's an attempt to suppress American voting rights disguised as an attempt to reduce voter fraud where there is none."
But most of the vice president's discussion focused on the nation's employment, and Biden rolled out a list of numbers including 668,000 manufacturing jobs created in recent years. Now, Biden said, he and President Barack Obama have two important tasks to accomplish to ensure more growth.
First, Biden praised Obama's $302 billion plan earlier this year to increase transportation spending and keep transit programs going for four years.
"We need to modernize our infrastructure â?? our highways, airports, railroads and canals," he said. "Every $1 billion in investment creates 30,000 jobs, 14 percent which go to African-Americans."
Then he turned to the need for jobs training: "And to keep our manufacturing going we need a highly skilled workforce. They require new skills to build the same product they did five or 10 years ago."
Toward the end of his speech, the vice president congratulated the Urban League for its consistent history and mission of working toward economic equality.
"What you are all about is providing people with a sense of dignity," Biden said.
Priebus, Republican National Committee chair, said his party has offered solutions to increasing African-American employment.
"There's one very important bill that passed the House and Senate and was just signed by the president," Priebus said. "The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act."
He cited comments recently made by National Urban League President Marc Morial, who said, "Millions of under-employed workers and urban youth and youth of color can receive the skills, training and support services they need to chart a path to a better future."
"That is good news for all of us," Priebus said. "We want you to know that the Republican Party is listening and fighting for you."
The Urban League is a nonpartisan organization, and Morial said it welcomes points of view and discussion from across the political spectrum.
The Urban League's annual report for 2014, released in April, noted that the underemployment rate for African-American workers was 20.5 percent, compared with 18.4 percent for Hispanic workers and 11.8 percent for white workers. Underemployment is defined as those who are jobless or working part-time jobs but desiring full-time work.
The report also said African-Americans are twice as likely to be unemployed as whites.
Seven mayors participated in a panel and offered local solutions to the growing jobs and economic gap nationally between whites and blacks. Among them:
--Alvin Brown, mayor of Jacksonville, Florida, said his city had 25,000 uninsured young people but used an "all hands on deck" solution to raise $250,000 and get insurance for all of the uninsured students. "You can't learn if you're sick and not in school," Brown said.
--Karen Freeman-Wilson, mayor of Gary, Indiana, said her city has aggressively recruited to keep home-grown talent in the city and working on its problems. "If we all leave, what will happen to the city?" she said. "If you help solve these problems, you can go anywhere in the world and write your own (career) ticket."
--Michael Coleman, mayor of Columbus, Ohio, said, "You have to create many kinds of jobs. They can't all be high end."
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