The federal jobs guarantee and economic justice

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Martin Luther King Jr. Saw Three Evils in the World, Racism was only the first. (Santi Visalli / Getty)

“We need an economic bill of rights. This would guarantee a job to all people who want to work and are able to work. It would mean creating certain public-service jobs.”  

That’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaking in 1968. Throughout his life King advocated for economic justice, arguing it was integral to racial equality.  

“What good is having the right to sit at a lunch counter,” he famously said, “if you can’t afford to buy a hamburger?”  

King understood that if the country did not address the class underpinnings of racial inequality, substantive change could not be achieved. More than 50 years after the first wave of civil rights legislation, his words ring true. Our country remains plagued by racial inequality, particularly with regards to wealth and employment.  

The average white family in America owns 10 times the wealth of the average black family and eight times the wealth of the average hispanic family. The black unemployment rate is roughly double the white unemployment rate and remains so regardless of education level. On average, blacks and hispanics earn about 75 percent of what whites earn.  

These groups are also more likely to be incarcerated despite committing most crimes at roughly the same rate as whites, putting them at a serious disadvantage in the job market. Even among those with a record, the hiring disparity persists. A study conducted by Princeton sociologists found that “black and [hispanic] applicants with clean backgrounds fared no better than a white applicant just released from prison.” Additionally, black and hispanic applicants with equal qualifications to white applicants get callbacks from job interviews at significantly lower rates.  

As King suggested, one way to tackle these problems is through a federal jobs guarantee, with a stated goal of eliminating involuntary unemployment. In the last year, a cohort of Senate Democrats and think tanks have brought this issue to the fore.  

Here’s how the federal jobs guarantee works: Any unemployed adult is guaranteed a job by the federal government. A living wage, health care, paid sick leave, paid family leave and vacation (collectively known as fringe benefits) are included. Paying a living wage and providing fringe benefits sets a price floor in the economy, incentivizing private sector employers to match these benefits or risk losing workers.  

The goal, however, is not to disrupt the private sector or “crowd out” firms. Instead, the government acts as an employer of last resort, absorbing those left out by the labor market and gently pushing the private sector towards better wages and fringe benefits. 

For the marginalized workers of America, this is welcome news. Blacks and hispanics, who suffer from aforementioned high unemployment rates, have the most to gain from full employment. Increased bargaining power generated by a job guarantee will also help fight against hiring discrimination and the wage gap.  

How will these new workers be utilized? In every sector of the economy, from child care and elder care to infrastructure and renewable energy to nature conservation and the arts. Projects will be designed at the local and state level before being approved for federal funding. Low income black and hispanic communities less access to public parks, child care, arts funding and  historically have infrastructure, like highways, built through their neighborhoods without consent. By decentralizing this program, systematically underserved communities will be able to tailor projects to their specific problems, goals and needs.  

Most price estimates for this program hover between $500 billion and $750 billion per year, but that number is deceptively high. By eliminating involuntary unemployment, welfare spending will be slashed and government revenues will increase due to a larger tax base. 

A federal jobs guarantee is just one piece of the racial justice puzzle, but it’s an important one. As an employer of last resort, this program won’t turn the entire workforce into public sector employees. It will, however, set minimum standards for the private sector and provide work for the involuntarily unemployed. For blacks and hispanics, this program will provide economic stability, strengthen bargaining power and increase agency for community projects. More than 50 years after King’s death, it’s time to listen to his calls for economic justice. 


Harry Zehner is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at harry.zehner@uconn.edu.

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