On Friday, the Labor Department announced that over 20.5 million Americans lost their jobs in April, bringing the unemployment rate to 14.7 percent. This level of devastation has not been reached since the Great Depression. With more than one in four companies shuttered to minimize the pandemic’s death toll and at least 30 million workers seeking unemployment benefits, we are in the throes of an unprecedented jobs crisis.
Just like the health crisis, economic fallout is hitting black and brown communities particularly hard. Far more black, Latinx, and Native American households are financially impacted or severely harmed by the coronavirus than white households. People of color make up an outsized share of the essential workers — grocery store clerks, bus drivers, janitors and home care workers — who risk exposure to the virus while earning low wages with few benefits.
While Congress has taken some important steps to provide relief, more must be done to keep people safe, prevent job losses and maintain incomes. We face a recession with the potential for Depression-era job losses, and we know from experience that black and brown workers bear the greatest risk of long-term economic setbacks. To ensure an inclusive recovery and a more resilient future, Congress needs to enact a federal job guarantee: a public option for a job with living wages and full benefits on projects that meet long-neglected community needs.
This idea is not new. The Humphrey-Hawkins Act — introduced in the 1970s by Senator Hubert Humphrey, a Democrat from Minnesota, and Representative Augustus Hawkins, a Democrat from California — proposed employment guarantees. The original bill allowed citizens to sue the government if they couldn’t find a job. A version of federal job protections has been percolating for years. In 2018, three Democratic senators — Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Bernie Sanders of Vermont — approved of the idea. Hundreds of scholars, leaders and organizations working for racial, economic and environmental justice have signed on to a Jobs for All pledge calling for a federal guarantee.
The coronavirus exposes the extreme vulnerability of a system that actively produces inequality. A job guarantee is a powerful solution that would not only address urgent needs but also bend our economy toward racial and economic justice.
As Pavlina Tcherneva, an economist at Bard College, described, some of these guaranteed jobs could be in disaster preparation and monitoring. We could hire workers to conduct the community-based testing, monitoring and contract tracing necessary to contain the virus and safely reopen the economy. Workers would be equipped with proper personal protective equipment, and could have access to child care provided through the program. Employment (rather than unemployment) offices across the country could identify and fill shortages of ventilators and masks.
The program would be funded by the federal government and administered locally, with community input to identify projects that address long-term physical and care infrastructure needs. Communities could implement energy efficiency retrofits and environmental restoration efforts to fight climate change. They could hire teacher’s assistants, child care providers and elder care aides to support our youth and seniors. And they could remediate brownfields and create new public art.
States and cities could also implement larger-scale projects, for example laying municipal broadband networks that plug disconnected communities into the modern economy — a divide made visible as public schools scrambled to implement distance learning.
By ensuring that everyone can have not just any job, but a good job with dignified wages, benefits, health care, safe working conditions and full worker rights, a job guarantee would deliver long-needed worker reforms. It would tackle poverty by providing a viable alternative for the 40 percent of workers who earn less than $15 per hour. And it would reduce racial employment disparities by guaranteeing good jobs for everyone, including black, Latinx and Native American workers who face hiring discrimination and are disproportionately relegated to low-wage jobs.
A federal commitment to universal employment has deep roots in the New Deal and the civil rights movement. The Works Progress Administration employed 8.5 million people over eight years, building infrastructure that supported and powered the nation over the next century. In 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt called for an Economic Bill of Rights, beginning with the right to employment. Martin Luther King, Jr., pushed for guaranteed jobs in his final years and Coretta Scott King led a grass-roots movement championing it.
An updated version of Roosevelt’s vision would increase bargaining power and expand the social safety net for all workers. By hiring workers at the beginning of a downturn, a permanent job guarantee would operate as an automatic stabilizer in perpetuity, maintaining consumer spending and protecting us from recessions — making our economy more resilient as well as more inclusive.
This time last year, no one would have predicted that a global pandemic would bring us to the brink of economic collapse. But we can predict with certainty that Covid-19 will not be our last economic shock. A job guarantee can mitigate this harm and usher in a more just and equitable economic future.
Angela Glover Blackwell is founder in residence at PolicyLink and host of the podcast Radical Imagination. Darrick Hamilton (@DarrickHamilton) is a professor and executive director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at The Ohio State University.
The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: [email protected].
Source: NY times