When the pandemic first hit in March 2020 and various states started to enforce mandatory lockdowns, the country’s low-wage workers of color suffered the most. Already facing lower income, wealth, health coverage, and housing security, the pandemic only worsened these volatile economic conditions as Congress failed to pass bold economic legislation. Frontline workers deemed “essential” at the start of the pandemic still face racial inequities in wages and work conditions. As a result, proponents of a federal jobs guarantee are convinced that the implementation of such a program is needed now more than ever.
Employment may be rising but it’s still below pre-pandemic levels, with millions reporting that they aren’t bringing enough money home to put food on the table or pay their rent according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Non-white residents make up 38% of the total U.S. population but account for 52% of those currently living below the poverty line. The hospitality industry, where women and people of color make up the lion’s share of jobholders, saw some of the most disproportionate job losses across the country.
These outcomes are not accidental. They are the result of the decades of economic policies that have devalued workers, granted generous tax breaks to the wealthy, prioritized large corporations, and ignored deep racial inequities that have existed in our workforce.
According to a statement from the National Black Worker Center (NBWC), a federal jobs guarantee would “offer alternatives to workers facing racism and other forms of discrimination in the workplace.” The NBWC noted how often workers of color, particularly Black workers, stay in exploitative and precarious jobs because of the lack of options available to them. Arguably, a federal jobs guarantee could be the “first step in ensuring that dignified work is a human right,” the NBWC said.
While advocates acknowledge that a federal jobs guarantee isn’t a silver bullet to eliminate the racial wealth gap or corporate war on workers’ rights, Angela Glover Blackwell, founder of PolicyLink, and Darrick Hamilton, director of the Institute for the Study of Race, Stratification and Political Economy at The New School, argued that it’s still an essential step to “bend our economy toward racial and economic justice.”
More choices, stability, and fair wages for workers
The proposition of a federal jobs guarantee isn’t new—former President Franklin D. Roosevelt tried and failed to pass legislation that would ensure Americans had “the right” to a job before his death in 1945; more recently in 2018, Democratic senators introduced a job guarantee pilot program while a group of economists previously called for the permanent creation of a National Investment Employment Corps that would cost $223 billion less than military spending in 2020. While these proposals were never adopted, the state of the economy in the wake of the pandemic has arguably re-opened a window of opportunity for advocates. The economic fallout from the pandemic pressured Congress and the Trump administration to enact progressive economic policies that they likely wouldn’t have otherwise. In the past year and a half, policymakers have extended unemployment benefits, sent stimulus checks to millions of Americans, expanded the child tax credit, and extended billions of dollars in forgivable loans to small businesses.
The benefits have been so staggering that 68% of unemployed workers who were eligible for benefits received financial support that was greater than their lost earnings according to the University of Chicago. A more recent report from researchers at Harvard University and University of California, Berkeley, found that government benefits prevented 200,000 people in the Bay Area from falling below the poverty line during the pandemic. A federal jobs guarantee that provided jobs quickly and efficiently could replace much of the need for unemployment insurance with a productive alternative and reduce the friction that people feel when transitioning within the labor market.
A $543 billion per year investment in a National Investment Employment Corps would result in the employment of 10.7 million workers and a substantial increase in the long-term growth rate of the economy according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. This type of investment would also substantially help Black and brown workers, particularly those who work in the service industry and rely on tips for most of their take-home pay, according to Saru Jayaraman, president of One Fair Wage, an advocacy organization pushing to simultaneously raise the minimum end the $2.13-an-hour sub-minimum wage for tipped workers.
A federal jobs guarantee in a place like New York City could potentially pressure employers to pay adequate wages and offer better worker protections. This would particularly affect New York workers of color, who make up 85% of tipped workers in the city and were hit hard when the pandemic started. Official New York City hospitality statistics reported that the city’s restaurant industry had over 23,000 establishments, provided over 300,000 jobs, and paid $10.7 billion in total wages in 2019. When the World Health Organization (WHO) issued a global pandemic warning in February, more than 315,000 New Yorkers were employed in the industry. By the middle of March 2020, there were over 3,000 new COVID-19 cases a day on average, the city had become the epicenter of the pandemic, and restaurant employment dropped to 91,000, according to state figures.
Jade Golden is one of the restaurant workers who left the industry mid-2020. She’d spent the last decade splitting her time as a bartender between Florida and New York. However, she’d been thinking about leaving the industry since 2019 because of the toxicity and stress she experienced before the pandemic even arrived.
“It was the only part of my life that I hated,” Golden said. “It was the only part of my day that I had to emotionally prepare for, and 2020 was the first chance to detox off of the strict cash diet and see there was a chance to live a life outside of this.”
With a federal jobs guarantee, advocates say that people like Golden could more easily leave ill-fitting jobs and transition into roles that bring more fulfillment and stability. Additionally, it would help address the fact that under current standards, even when the economy looks to have “full employment,” workers of color, especially Black workers, still suffer unemployment in disproportionate numbers.
Most economists define “full employment” as when employment has fallen to the lowest possible level that won’t cause inflation. An unemployed person is defined as someone who is willing to work at a wage currently being offered to others, but cannot find a job themselves. But, according to Robert Hall, an economist at Stanford University, “this definition is purely subjective,” as there is no objective way to distinguish between someone who is unemployed and someone who has decided not to work.
Even with lower levels of unemployment, the effects of economic and social institutional racism still ensure that millions of people—primarily Black and brown Americans—would be without jobs. For example, there has been an unemployment gap between Black Americans and the rest of the country for nearly 50 years, with the typical Black unemployment rate double the national average.
Some economists argue that Democrats bear a considerable amount of responsibility for the lack of any economic policies that meaningfully address inequities. According to Felicia Wong, president and CEO at the Roosevelt Institute, the blame mostly lies on a neoliberalism worldview many Democrats adopted in the wake of the Great Recession. That worldview resulted in economic policies that refuse to address racist institutional practices or remove systemic barriers. Not only have those policies done little to fix racial economic inequalities, in many ways, they’ve worsened those inequalities. Instead, Wong argued that any economic approach needs to consider where policies were at the start of the pandemic, look to re-envision rather than reinforce them, and question the premises those policies were based on.
“On a macro level, as a society, we have come to believe that 4% unemployment is full employment,” said Jeremie Greer, co-founder and co-executive director of Liberation in a Generation, a progressive movement support organization. “[But] if 4% unemployment is full employment, that means 8% Black unemployment is full employment.”
Shifting the balance of power
Experts argue that a federal jobs guarantee could bring us closer to an equitable economy by shifting some of the power dynamics between workers and employers to give workers more choices, more resources, and the freedom to consider them fully.
Andrew Blickle knows from direct experience how having a reliable income can make a considerable difference in how a person approaches choosing a job. As a recent college graduate in 2016, Blickle spent months driving for Uber while thinking about how he wanted to apply his math and economics degree. Eventually, he enrolled in the Americorps Vista program where he volunteered with the organization he currently works for, LifePieces to MasterPieces, an option he could consider because he wasn’t under as much pressure due to a lack of income.
“My experience with Uber gave me this freedom to think about what I wanted, but that doesn’t exist for everyone,” Blickle said. “Having a guaranteed income from a job that helps the public would be powerful and give employees a lot more power.”
Additionally, there’s an opportunity for the government to provide jobs that not only offer stability, but the chance for their work to make a positive difference as well. With the rising threats of the climate crisis, unequal distribution of care responsibilities, and crumbling infrastructure in cities and states across the country, there are several sectors the government could robustly invest in by creating jobs that would also address societal ills.
Hyman P. Minsky, one of the seminal economists and writers on the topic of unemployment and underemployment, envisioned the government providing jobs within education, housing, and health care by improving parks, building recreation facilities, providing day care, and so on. Blickle also sees a lot of appeal in a federal job guarantee program that would offer people the chance to work on addressing large-scale societal problems.
“If the government gave me a job related to climate change, even though I’ve never done anything related to it before, it’s something that I would be interested in,” he said.
As the pandemic enters its third year, harnessing the interest of people like Blickle may be vital to restabilizing the U.S. economy and creating more equitable systems of employment. Author Arundhati Roy described the pandemic as “a portal, a gateway between one world and the next,” and most economists agree that we’re approaching a critical point in deciding how much of the world we’re entering will look the same as the one we’ve left.
We’ve been here before. In 1933, with one in four Americans out of work, former President Roosevelt initiated the now infamous New Deal Program to stabilize and stimulate the economy. Through the New Deal came The Works Progress Administration (WPA), a $130 billion (in today’s dollars) employment and infrastructure program that created over 8 million jobs. Two years after FDR signed the New Deal, the economy grew by 12.9%, and at one point the WPA employed more than 15% of the nation’s labor force. As noted by The New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie, many historians regard the New Deal as the third founding moment in the history of American democracy.
However, in 80 years following the success of the New Deal, no similarly ambitious and far-reaching jobs program has been implemented, but the time to do so may have finally arrived. While some opponents point to the high cost of such a program, recent polls have shown that a Federal Jobs Guarantee has bipartisan support. A September 2020 Data for Progress poll found that 78% of Democrats and 53% of Republicans agreed that a Federal Jobs Guarantee was a viable way for the government to address the economic upheaval wrought by COVID-19. After Democrats regained control of the House in early 2021, Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley introduced a resolution for the federal government to recognize its duty in creating a Federal Jobs Guarantee. The resolution would fulfill the “promise of full employment, ensure a just, equitable recovery, establish a more resilient and inclusive economy, and begin to close racial and gender income gaps,” echoing former President Roosevelt’s thwarted attempts to establish an Economic Bill of Rights and pass the Employment Act of 1946.
For many, the stresses of the pandemic have brought the U.S. to another crucial pivot point similar to what the country faced after the Great Depression. And in the wake of an apparent racial reckoning, it’s even more frustrating for many that a proposal like a federal jobs guarantee program that would offer enormous benefits to BIPOC workers continues to stall in Congress.
With the cautionary tale of the Employment Act of 1946—a watered down version of President Roosevelt’s bold economic plan lacking any concrete federal actions passed in the wake of his death—in mind, civil rights leaders and racial justice advocates are determined to keep the goal of eliminating racial inequity at the forefront of any economic policy changes. Rather than relying on the private market to fix inequities and strengthen workers’ rights, they’re calling on the federal government to guarantee work that offers reliable and equitable protections and benefits to workers who continue to struggle in the pandemic. A permanent public job guarantee program would empower a class of workers, mainly those of color, to thrive in an economy that has so often left them behind.