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Ep 6 Radical Imagination: Federal Job Guarantee

A federal job guarantee is an old idea making its way back this election cycle. It’s controversial and considered radical—but what makes more sense than making sure that everyone who needs a job can get one? A job guarantee would bring financial stability to millions of families. And it would put people to work doing things the nation needs, such as building affordable housing and caring for children. In this episode, Angela Glover Blackwell explores the tantalizing possibilities—and the feasibility—of a federal job guarantee with one of its leading advocates, Darrick Hamilton, Executive Director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at the Ohio State University.

Episode Transcript:

Angela Glover Blackwell (AGB): (00:05)
Welcome to the Radical Imagination podcast, where we dive into the stories and solutions that are fueling change. I’m your host, Angela Glover Blackwell, and today we’re going to talk about a radical idea from the past that’s coming back this election cycle.

news clip: (00:21)
“For too long, too many Americans have faced lousy jobs or no jobs. One answer, a guaranteed job at a living wage. A federal jobs guarantee does sound pretty bold… federal jobs guarantee.” Ocasio-Cortez on the proposal for a jobs guarantee.

AGB: (00:37)
In 1944 President Franklin D. Roosevelt spoke about the right for every American to have a job.

news clip: (00:43)
“The right to a useful and remunerative job to provide adequate food…”

AGB: (00:50)
This idea is known as a federal job guarantee, a policy proposal where the state ensures jobs to all adults as a safety net for financial stability. It means that anyone who wants or needs a job can get one, paid at a decent hourly wage and with benefits. In FDR’s time, that meant putting Americans to work, building our nation’s infrastructure. And many of the democratic candidates today want to bring that idea back.

news clip: (01:18)
“Raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Widely supported, rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, roads and bridges, putting millions of people back to work, widely supported.”

AGB: (01:32)
Even though the official unemployment rate is only about 4 percent, it doesn’t reflect the struggle of people who have given up looking for work or who are underemployed or trapped in low-wage jobs, working double and triple shifts just to make ends meet.

news clip: (01:47)
“It’s a lot more challenging now to actually find employment that may be best suited for your needs.” “Most jobs won’t even hire you full 40 hours. They’ll give you 25 hours. People want to work, but I’m gonna need 40 hours.”

AGB: (02:03)
But, what does a job guarantee mean, practically? To talk more about this, we’re joined by Darrick Hamilton. He’s the executive director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at the Ohio State University.

AGB: (02:19)
Darrick, welcome to Radical Imagination.

DarrickHamilton: (02:21)
Thank you, Angela. Happy to be here.

AGB: (02:24)
So a federal job guarantee. Let’s talk about it. What is a federal job guarantee and why is it a good idea in your opinion?

DH: (02:31)
What we are talking about with a federal job guarantee is literally eliminating involuntary unemployment, working poverty. So a federal job guarantee would defacto provide a wage level that is above poverty, that really gives everyone the opportunity to have economic dignity as it relates to income.

AGB: (02:53)
So the idea of a federal job guarantee isn’t necessarily new. When did you first get drawn to concept and what’s the historical context for the idea?

DH: (03:02)
Far too often, we retrospective and think about how we got to a point. I would probably place it at at least five years, maybe a decade ago, but we can go as far back as FDR and even further. He’s not the first person, but he prominently talked about guaranteed income and guaranteed employment.

news clip: (03:21)
“The second bill of rights, under which a new basis of security and prosperity can be established for all, regardless of state or race or creed.”

DH: (03:33)
In his 1944 State of the Union Address, which was about 75 years ago, when he introduced a second bill of rights, which might be described under the nomenclature of an economic bill of rights. And a cornerstone of that was a federal job guarantee. And then of course we’ve had Black women like Sadie Alexander, who was a Black woman economist, a strong proponent of a federal job guarantee. Martin Luther King, Coretta Scott King, the list is longer. So there’s a long historical precedent.

news clip: (04:04)
“Now, it’s pretty incredible that we see more and more politicians embracing an idea that FDR aside, I think many people would consider to be fairly radical…”

AGB: (04:14)
And within the past year, we’ve seen democratic senators and now presidential candidates like Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Bernie Sanders embracing some form of job guarantee.

news clip: (04:25)
“I believe that we can build a country where no one is forgotten. No one is left behind, where parents can put food on the table, where there are good paying jobs with good benefits in every neighborhood.”

AGB: (04:38)
Why do you think this idea is making its way back into the spotlight today?

DH: (04:43)
I think that we are at a moment where we have such gross inequalities, such concentration at the top. We have vulnerabilities amongst workers. The nature of jobs have changed. The nature of what it means to have a job with a pension, a job with healthcare, a job with an adequate wage, a job without the risk of being unemployed the next week? That is no longer the case. So I think it’s the combination of all these things. I think that is all leading us to a moment and I’m applauding all the candidates that are coming forth with these big bold ideas and as well as the social movements behind them.

AGB: (05:21)
This is an exciting moment. And thinking about the economy and how so many people who are progressive and looking for social change, they’re beginning to, they’re beginning to really ground their solutions in an understanding of the economy and what has to change in the economy for us to have a society in which all can participate. In thinking about the federal job guarantee, how would it actually work in the context of the U.S. economy?

DH: (05:49)
You know, I would be deceptive of not completely honest to say that there would not be any learning pains and there would be with any policy we put forth. But we could implement it by taking an inventory at local levels of what community needs are. We can set up national, as well as regional and local entities, so that they can put forth ideas of what their community might need. Whether it is a particular rerouting of a river in a local community that we might not be able to tell from a national level or thinking about physical infrastructure around bridges, roads, and dams, etc. We can use that inventory of jobs that we develop. And we can prioritize the ones that have the greatest impact with regards to our social needs and the greatest impact with regards to providing vehicles for employment. And we can make sure that this is regionally dispersed. It would have the effect of bringing dire needs and dire resources to areas that have the greatest needs. In other words, we can have regional balance in America, those areas that might be suffering because of a loss of a particular industry. Well those would be the areas with needs and they would be the areas that would be prioritized by which we divert certain resources.

AGB: (07:13)
Has the federal jobs guarantee been tried or implemented in other places. And if so, what have we learned from those efforts?

DH: (07:20)
There is the program in India that assures X amount of periods. I think it’s a hundred days of employment in rural areas. There’s the program in Argentina as well that took place. But in the U.S., I think there’s precedent. In the U.S. we can really go back to our historical application of new deal policies. One example is the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

news clip: (07:45)
“Vital to the communities which they serve are the thousands of miles of highway, instructed and improved by the works program. The need for first class highways grows constantly.”

DH: (07:54)
The WPA put Americans to work. It was responsible for many of the highways, our public libraries, all the infrastructure that we may take for granted today — a lot of it was the result of public power putting Americans to work with a program like WPA. And we can see from those lessons that it had a big important effect in getting us out of the depression. It had a big important effect of leading to an infrastructure that facilitated Americans, unprecedented growth, having roads and bridges built. And it also kept people out of below subsistence. It provided basic needs. So I think we have some real strong historical examples of what public power can do when we put people to work towards building our infrastructure.

AGB: (08:46)
And there are critics? What are some of the most prominent arguments against the job guarantee that you’ve come across?

DH: (08:53)
Ironically, some people, maybe it’s not ironic, but some people argue that it will crowd out low-wage employment and to that I say that is a feature, not a bug of the program. So you can imagine that those firms that stay in business largely by having wages below a certain level, so as to have a profit margin that is appealing to them. Well, they probably would go out of business or they would have to reconstruct themselves so as to offer competitive wages.

AGB: (09:25)
Coming up on Radical Imagination, we continue the conversation on the federal job guarantee with our guest, Darrick Hamilton. Stay with us, more when we come back.

PolicyLink: (09:50)
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AGB: (10:40)
We’re back and we pick up the conversation with Darrick Hamilton, the executive director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at the Ohio State University. Now we’re going to talk about the connection between the federal job guarantee and what’s called the racial wealth gap. In other words, the huge difference in financial wellbeing between Whites and people of color, which is greater than it was nearly four decades ago. A report released earlier this year, titled, “Ten Solutions to Bridge the Racial Wealth Divide,” suggests that this gap will not close unless we come up with a bold structural reform. Darrick, earlier this year, you co-authored a report focused on 10 solutions to bridge the racial wealth divide. How did this report come about and what does it seek to accomplish?

DH: (11:31)
We wanted to consolidate all the big, bold ideas that are out there that can address racial inequality. We wanted to point out that it is not pie in the sky, that we can have a just economy, that there are really tangible policies out there that have already been proposed and we just wanted to put them all together in one solid space so that we can move forward.

AGB: (11:54)
I, also from reading the report, was impressed about the warnings against false solutions. Say a bit about false solutions and why it’s essential even when you’re talking about how to solve a problem to be explicit about what we don’t want to do.

DH: (12:09)
I think that we have reached the point in society where we no longer even challenge certain narratives. We’ve had a consensus amongst, what we might call neo-liberals, that the market is the solution to all our problems. That the market is the best arbiter of somebody’s worth. Whether someone’s putting forth effort or trying to game the system. So hence we end up with behavioral explanations for inequality. The notion that there are opportunities out there in society and people just need to seize upon them, then they can be successful. So we wanted to combat that frame and say, particularly when we look at wealth, that certainly does not seem to be the case. We know that wealth is largely driven by wealth itself. You know, I use the phrase wealth begets more wealth, so it is having some capital at a key point in one’s life that puts them in a vehicle for savings, that really generates wealth. And we really wanted to be explicit and say that, when we look across groups, it is not something that is ineptitude amongst a particular group or it’s not some dysfunction, but rather poverty and inequality is related to structure itself.

AGB: (13:28)
You’ve identified a federal job guarantee as one of your 10 solutions to the racial wealth divide, but it’s clear that a federal job guarantee would benefit many people in this society. Many people who are not of color, and yet this comes up often in conversations about ways to close the racial wealth divide or to deal with racial inequality. Why is it always being brought up in that context, given that it’s pretty much a universal program as you’ve described it?

DH: (13:55)
Yeah, I mean if we consider the fact that at every level of education, the unemployment rate for blacks is virtually twice as high as that of whites. If we consider the adage that whenever it is an economic downturn, blacks are first fired and the last hired literally removing unemployment in an involuntary sense would address some of those gross inequities. So that makes it race conscious. Even though it’s universal. Certainly there are many white individuals that are suffering, uh, that don’t have adequate wages and also are faced with that threat of being unemployed and have to put up without agency at the workplace that they’re at. So why don’t we have a whole universal economy that is inclusive of everyone, but we do it in a race conscious way. So if we have a federal job guarantee, it disciplines the workforce in general, black people at all levels, white people, all levels will be able to have greater bargaining power so that they are simply not at the whim of an employer.

AGB: (14:59)
And I have heard you talk about the particular challenge for people who are Latin X in terms of not having the same unemployment levels as people who are black, but wages being lower and the numbers of jobs, part time jobs that people are pulling together to try to make even a minimum wage. This would address that issue as well.

DH: (15:21)
Yes. For example, care work is one of those domains that Latin X workers and black workers are overpopulated, particularly those that are women. Well, if we were, for instance, to federalize care work or offer a public alternative of care work, not only would we be able to provide better working conditions, higher wages, but from a power standpoint, any marginalized worker would be more empowered under a federal job guarantee than not.

AGB: (15:57)
When you think about a job guarantee program in this country, what would it require of us, of the nation for this job guarantee program to actually work?

DH: (16:07)
Politically, we’re going to need a social movement, so I think that’s a necessary condition. We’re not far away. It polls very well, perhaps surprising to many people. It polls well even in States that are considered red states. So we need the imagination of the American population to not just re-imagine what we did in the past. And here I’m borrowing a line from Senator Sanders to think about our future, to reimagine a future that we want. I mean, we could literally put Americans to work to rebuild the entire world so that we can promote peace rather than a military industrial complex.

AGB: (16:45)
It’s an inspiring vision and it sounds like you think that if we could muster the public will and the political will, that being able to identify the work, putting the infrastructure in place, getting people to understand the opportunity that could be ours, that we could get there perhaps even in a short period of time. And you know, Derek, I have found that people in the academic world, in the social change world who have this kind of commitment to change and keep driving toward it even when the times don’t seem like they’re ever going to open up for these ideas, that the ideas are there because of that tenacity. I think of it as a superpower. When you think about yourself, what’s your superpower?

DH: (17:32)
You are causing me to reflect and think about and I appreciate that. You know, I’ve said this line before, if not me, if not us then who? We are so privileged in the Academy. I’m in a position where as a tenured professor, at least that threat of unemployment is not so in my face. That puts me in a position, you know, I can not fear loss of job, but uh, really have a perspective towards justice and uh, really have that commitment towards justice.

AGB: (18:05)
Darrick, thank you for speaking with us. Thank you. Darrick Hamilton is the executive director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at the Ohio State University.

AGB: (18:23)
It may seem strange to talk about federal job guarantee at a time of low unemployment, but national statistics mass the economic hardship and suffering in low income communities, especially communities of color. The statistics don’t count the millions of people who have given up looking for work, including people with conviction records and returning veterans. The statistics don’t count the millions more who worked two or three jobs to support their families just barely or who live with the insecurity of temporary or gig work. A job guarantee would stabilize the job market and improve working conditions and it would have the marvelous benefit of putting people to work, doing the things that improve their communities. Building affordable housing to solve the homeless crisis in cities, caring for young children and frail elders, running programs that support young people to reach their full potential. This is exactly the kind of visionary idea that we should expect and demand of the federal government.

AGB: (19:33)
Radical Imagination was produced by the Futuro Studios for PolicyLink. The Futuro Studios team includes Marlon Bishop, Andrés Caballero, Ruxandra Guidi, Stephanie Lebow, and Jeanne Montalvo. The PolicyLink team includes Rachel Gichinga, Glenda Johnson, Fran Smith, Jacob Goolkasian, Sarah Truhaft and Milly Hawk Daniel. Our theme music was composed by Taka Yusuzawa and Alex Suguira. I’m your host, Angela Glover Blackwell. Join us again next time and in the meantime, you can find us online@radicalimagination.us. Remember to subscribe and share.

AGB: (20:14)
For our next episode of Radical Imagination, Richmond, California decides to address its problem with gun violence by hiring young men with a history of weapons offenses. 35, 40 homicides a year. We’ve put more police on the streets, and that’s not helping us to, we need another instrument. That’s next on Radical Imagination.

 

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