A job for all. Everyone ready and able to work will get a job – a good job that pays enough to bring a family above the poverty line –guaranteed by the federal government. At a time when our political leaders seem more intent on driving us apart rather than bringing us together, a federally guaranteed jobs program is an idea bold enough to break through the muck. Moreover, when Jerome Powell, the head of the Federal Reserve, essentially announces that he will continue to fight inflation by raising interest rates until millions lose their jobs, it is long past time to stop sacrificing workers and their families for prices that they do not control.
A federal jobs guarantee is not a new idea. Coming out of World War II, Franklin Delano Roosevelt argued that Americans had come to understand that political and social rights had to be accompanied by economic rights. He pledged an Economic Bill of Rights that included the right to a job for everyone willing and able to work. Sadly, he died before he could make that promise real.
Philip Randolph, a visionary leader of both the labor and the civil rights movement, took up Roosevelt’s promise, arguing that “if full employment can be maintained in a war for destruction, it can also be maintained in peace for construction.”
The mobilization for World War II had created a booming economy with full employment. Now the question was what would be done during peacetime. Both FDR and Randolph argued that a Federal Jobs Guarantee would provide the foundation for a thriving democracy and a just society. Randolph joined with other labor leaders to push Congress to pass a Full Employment Bill. Their efforts were stymied by the business lobby, conservatives in both parties, and by Southern Democrats fearful that full employment might empower Blacks to challenge segregation and the South’s system of legal apartheid.
A Federal Jobs Guarantee would offer every person a job with a living wage. Instead of paying unemployment to laid-off workers, the government would provide wages to put people to work.
There is no shortage of necessary work to be done. Our infrastructure remains decrepit and dangerous, and even Biden’s infrastructure bill only provides a down payment on what needs to be done. Catastrophic climate change and extreme weather require a massive effort to strengthen our defenses against catastrophe, to clean up after calamities that are growing worse and more frequent, and to make the transition to renewable energy and energy efficiency. Biden’s Infrastructure Reduction Act again makes a down payment, but much more needs to be done.
Similarly, it makes sense to invest on the front side of life rather than pay more on the backside, to invest in childcare and head start, the universal pre-K on the front side rather than welfare, jail care and despair on the back side. Every family with children could save literally thousands of dollars a year if the government joined other industrial countries in providing comprehensive assistance for families with children.
A Federal Jobs Guarantee would help mitigate the wild gyrations of our economy that wreak so much damage to families. During downturns, the Federal Guarantee would expand and ensure that everyone has a job rather than going on welfare or unemployment. During booms, the program would contract as the private sector expanded and that would help keep inflation from getting out of control.
A federal jobs guarantee would put a floor under wages across the economy, much the way a minimum wage does now, except far more effectively. That would empower workers to demand more from their employers and give employers incentives to become more efficient.
Most important, a federal jobs guarantee would keep working families from being brutalized when prices begin to rise. Instead of raising interest rates to throw workers out of work, federal officials would focus on monopoly pricing, on price gouging, on supply chain disruptions, on the financial barracudas that jack up prices and pocket predatory profits before driving good companies into bankruptcy.
The program would be easily affordable. Every worker employed would, of course, pay taxes – and not collect unemployment or welfare. With unemployment now near record lows, this is a good time to transition to a job guarantee.
Polls show, not surprisingly, that this idea is popular, particularly among working-class people across both parties. Contrary to the jibes of the right, Americans want to work in jobs with a living wage.
Donald Trump seems intent on running on revenge and retribution for what he sees as indignities and injustices of the past. Joe Biden seems intent on running on his record of accomplishments which are better than he’s given credit for – but this, too, looks backward not forward. Most Americans want to know what can be done to secure their futures, not re-litigate the past. Those who seek to lead this country should rouse us with their vision and their program for the future. If they do, a federal jobs guarantee is an idea whose time has come.