This Juneteenth, Why Not Jobs for All?

From Boston to Los Angeles, from Chicago to Dallas to Oakland, streets are alive this week with dance and drum circles, basketball tournaments and job fairs, and parades and protests as people commemorate Juneteenth. The oldest known African American tradition marking the emancipation of the nation’s last slaves, Juneteenth has become more than a celebration of Black culture and achievement. It is also a rallying point for Americans still fighting for freedom.

The nation is witnessing an era of historic activism. Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, the Dreamers, March for Our Lives, and countless others are demanding that America finally deliver on the promise of opportunity for all. Activists are joining together across race, ethnicity, class, gender, age, orientation, and every other line of identity to usher in the next generation of change — bold policies and protections that guarantee everyone has a fair chance to participate, contribute, and thrive. At the leading edge of activism is the fight for jobs for all. Nothing is more essential to freedom and dignity than the right to work and earn a decent living.

The economy is growing and overall unemployment is declining, but national trends mask gnawing racial and economic disparities. At least six million people, disproportionately people of color, are looking for work, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In many parts of the country, African Americans are unemployed at twice the rate of Whites, and in some cities the gulf is much wider. In Washington, DC in the first quarter of 2018, the unemployment rate among African Americans topped 12 percent and dipped below 2 percent among Whites.

A federal job guarantee that creates publicly financed jobs for all adults who want to work would go a long way toward closing racial gaps in employment. It also would address wage stagnation, anxiety around the growth of the gig economy and automation, and other systemic problems that leave millions of families of all races mired in poverty, financial insecurity, and uncertainty about their children’s future. A job guarantee would strengthen the workforce and stabilize the state and local tax base, allowing more resources to flow into communities and create fertile ground for business investment.

A job guarantee has the potential to be transformative not only for low-income people and people of color, but also for neighborhoods, regions, and the nation. Imagine the benefits that would ripple if people returning from prison, veterans, and others who now face barriers to employment had the chance to clean up vacant properties and construct alternative water collection systems in Flint. Or retrofit aging buildings throughout older industrial cities to be more energy efficient. Or restore the environment and provide outreach services to people living in isolated, struggling rural and tribal communities.

The notion of a federal commitment to universal employment has long been a lodestar in the nation’s movements for racial and economic justice. In 1944, President Franklin Roosevelt called for a Second Bill of Rights, focused on economic rights, beginning with the right to employment. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Coretta Scott King advocated for the right to a job as part of the next wave of the civil rights movement.

Economists Mark Paul, William Darity, Jr., and Darrick Hamilton recently propelled the idea to the forefront of progressive circles, with recommendations for a slate of legislation to maintain full employment and eliminate poverty. Critics pounced quickly, making predictable arguments about cost, government overreach, and the sanctity of the private market.

Nevertheless, the idea is gaining traction. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) has introduced a bill to create a three-year pilot program in select communities. Any adult would be guaranteed a job paying at least $15 an hour, with health benefits and paid family and sick leave.

Decent wages, benefits, and working conditions are only a few of the requisite elements of a job program that delivers maximum benefits. The program also must prioritize equity and inclusion, and incorporate training and apprenticeships that prepare workers for the jobs that are needed by private-sector employers. The program must produce tangible public benefits and focus on projects that improve life and opportunity in disinvested communities — projects chosen, designed, and implemented by communities themselves. And it should go without saying that critical safety-net programs must not be cut to pay for a job program.

Cities don’t have to wait for federal legislation to create a job guarantee. They can develop privately funded municipal initiatives, perhaps through pilots in target neighborhoods or for specific populations such as veterans, youth aging out of foster care, or people returning from prison. Communities can lead the way in advancing a vision of jobs for all, figuring out implementation, and building evidence to inform a full-fledged federal program.

Although it has largely been forgotten, the event we celebrate with Juneteenth emphasized the importance of work. Juneteenth, June 19, marks the date in 1865 when news of the Emancipation Proclamation reached slaves in Galveston, Texas — two and a half years after President Lincoln issued it and two months after the end of the Civil War. The order read to Texans proclaimed, “All slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between slave and master, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer.”

The government made clear that emancipation meant the freedom to work and earn a livelihood. Now let’s make sure everyone in America has the opportunity.

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