True Full Employment in the Midst of the Pandemic 

Winston Apple - February 5, 2021

Republicans in Congress have become masters of obstruction, rarely offering constructive proposals for forging true bipartisan agreement on legislation favored by Democrats (and voters).  Two concerns they have expressed with regard to addressing the economic consequences of the pandemic are useful and constructive and could provide the basis for a long-term solution.  (A solution that would even extend beyond the current crisis.) 

Their first concern is that relief should be more narrowly targeted and limited to those who truly need the money.  Their second concern is that unemployment benefits, if they are “too generous”, provide a disincentive for people to accept jobs, as a result of unemployment benefits that are equal to, or greater than, the pay they would receive for working. 

Both of these concerns could (and should) be addressed by passing the Jobs for All Act which was introduced by Congresswoman Frederica Wilson in February of 2019. 

In his masterwork, The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, published in 1936, during the depths of the Great Depression, noted British economist John Maynard Keynes proposed a job guarantee as the solution to the recurring problem of recessions and depressions, which seemed to be an inherent part of the “business cycle” that plagues laissez-faire (market) economies.   

“The right to a useful and remunerative job” was the first right listed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the Economic Bill of Rights that he proposed in his 1944 State of the Union Address.  Roosevelt concluded that section of his address by asking “the Congress to explore the means for implementing this economic bill of rights - for it is definitely the responsibility of the Congress so to do.”  We are still waiting for Congress to fulfill that responsibility.  In light of the ongoing economic consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic this would be a good time for Congress to act.  

A federal job guarantee is supported by a solid majority of voters.  In a poll conducted by Data for Progress and The Justice Collaborative in July of 2020, “Sixty-four percent of likely voters, including 78% of Democrats and 53% of Republicans, said they would support a federal job guarantee program as part of the government’s response to the economic crisis.”  

The Jobs for All Act proposed a model that would move us to true full employment very efficiently without creating another massive bureaucracy by providing federal funding while maintaining local control.  The act proposed the establishment of the National Full Employment Trust Fund to create employment opportunities for the unemployed by issuing Employment Opportunity Grants to state and local governments, and non-profit organizations.   

This approach would allow us to (in the words of the act) “achieve genuine full employment and fulfill the right to useful work at living wages for all persons able, willing and seeking employment”.  We can do this even during the pandemic by focusing on social useful jobs that can be done safely during the pandemic. 

If Congress acts promptly to set up the trust fund and fund it at the level needed to achieve true full employment, we can counter the negative economic impacts of the pandemic and avoid a severe recession or depression.   

The act provides for employment on a wide range of socially useful jobs, many of which could be done safely during the pandemic.  Of particular interest, given the nature of the current crisis, are jobs related to “the provision of human services, including childcare, health care, and support services for individuals and families with special needs, education, and the expansion of emergency food programs to reduce hunger.” 

In light of the fact that our failure to respond appropriately to the existential threat posed by global warming has created the potential for a disaster far more deadly than the pandemic, the inclusion of jobs that would “reverse climate change” should also be a top priority. 

Here is the full list of purposes for which Employment Opportunity Grants could be awarded by the National Full Employment Trust Fund (taken from the text of the act itself): 

(1) The construction, reconstruction, rehabilitation, and site improvement of affordable housing and public facilities, including improvements in the energy efficiency or environmental quality of such public facilities or housing. 

(2) The provision of human services, including childcare, health care, support services for individuals and families with special needs, education, after-school and vacation programs for children, and recreational and cultural enrichment programs for persons of all ages. 

(3) Programs that provide disadvantaged youth with opportunities for employment, education, leadership development, entrepreneurial skills development, and training. 

(4) The repair, remodeling, and beautification of schools, community centers, libraries, and other community-based public facilities, and the augmentation of staffing for the services they provide. 

(5) The restoration and revitalization of abandoned and vacant properties to alleviate blight in distressed and foreclosure-affected areas. 

(6) The expansion of emergency food programs to reduce hunger and promote family stability. 

(7) The augmentation of staffing in Head Start, and other early childhood education programs to promote school readiness, early literacy, life-long learning, and family involvement in their children’s education. 

(8) The maintenance, renovation and improvement of parks, playgrounds, and other public spaces. 

(9) Providing labor for non-capital-intensive aspects of federally or State-funded infrastructure projects. 

(10) The implementation of environmental initiatives designed to conserve natural resources, remediate environmental damage, reverse climate change, and achieve environmental sustainability. 

(11) The enhancement of emergency preparedness for natural and other community disasters and of post-emergency assistance for the victims of disasters. 

(12) The expansion of work-study opportunities for secondary and post-secondary students, and the creation of “bridge employment” opportunities for recent graduates who have been unable to find work in the occupations for which they have trained. 

(13) Programs that emulate the Federal art, music, theater, and writers’ projects of the Works Projects Administration by providing work for unemployed writers, musicians, artists, dancers and actors on projects that are consistent with the public service and equality-enhancing objectives of this Act. 

(14) The provision of job training to better equip Program employees to perform their program-funded jobs or to allow unemployed and underemployed individuals to obtain employment for which they otherwise would not qualify. 

(15) Other activities analogous to those described in paragraphs (1) through (14) that address public needs and can be implemented quickly. 

There is a lot of critical work that needs to be done that could be done even as we practice social distancing.  Using grants would give us a powerful and flexible means of addressing a wide range of critical needs.   

Given the dire situation of involuntary unemployment and food insecurity in which tens of millions of Americans find themselves through no fault of their own and the nature of the insurrection that unfolded in the wake of the 2020 presidential election, it is clear that a remark made by President Roosevelt in his 1944 address remains applicable today.  He said, “We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence.  ‘Necessitous men are not free men.’  People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.” 

Once the current crisis passes, having a job guarantee in place would continue to provide economic security and peace of mind for anyone and everyone who is willing to do an honest day’s work on a socially useful job.