Involuntary unemployment is barbaric. In the wealthiest country in history, almost 30 million people wish they had full-time work. But, as always, there aren’t enough jobs. And because economic security requires decent work, it’s unsurprising that 50 million people are poverty-stricken and 16 million children are hungry.
This is a disgrace and an economic error: the US government can easily afford a Job guarantee (JG) program, becoming our employer of last resort.
A right to a job may sound outlandish, but it’s common sense. You need dollars to eat, and unless you steal the dollars, you generally have to earn them. If the government wants to protect property with cops, courts, and prisons, issue a single, common currency, and tax and fine us in it, it should at least guarantee we can work for our own dollars. Politicians ramble about equality of opportunity and the dignity of work, but to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, we need boots. And lest our boots stomp each other’s necks in senseless competition for too few jobs, we need a job guarantee.
A job guarantee isn’t that radical. Thomas Paine proposed one in 1791. In 1944, FDR included the right to a living wage job in his Second Bill of Rights and his Republican opponent promised state-ensured employment. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights enshrined the right to work and philosophers Rawls and Dewey advocated government provide enough work. LBJ deliberated a JG and Martin Luther King Jr., demanded one.
In 1977, the Senate proposed legislation guaranteeing employment, allowing residents to sue the US government should it fail to provide it. The litigation provision was cut, but the final Humphrey-Hawkins Act authorizes Uncle Sam to “create a reservoir of public employment.” According to legal scholar Cass Sunstein, in 1990, an overwhelming 86 percent of respondents expressing an opinion wanted that reservoir. This January, the JG still polled high at 47 percent—even higher among people of color—despite its relative unfamiliarity.
Would a job guarantee just create dismal make-work? No. Even ultraconservative idol Bill Buckley admitted there’s always something to be accomplished. New Deal employees built dams, bridges, roads and parks. Similar efforts have succeeded in Sweden and South Africa. Congressman Conyers has proposed creating enough public works for full employment, targeting decaying, unsustainable infrastructure.