A Federal Job Guarantee: The Unfinished Business of the Civil Rights Movement

A Federal Job Guarantee: The Unfinished Business of the Civil Rights Movement

A Federal Job Guarantee: The Unfinished Business of the Civil Rights Movement

The 1963 March on Washington put a government guarantee to a job at the front of the civil rights agenda. It’s long past time to complete the work.

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The Covid-19 pandemic has served as a grave reminder of who suffers first, and worst, when the labor market falters. Our most marginalized workers are consistently the last ones hired and the first ones fired—a reality only made worse when crises strike. Nearly 2.4 million women have exited the workforce over the past year of the pandemic. That staggering number is disproportionately made up of Black and brown women. For these women in particular, recovering from this financial setback could take years.

The need for a Federal Job Guarantee could not be more urgent. A Federal Job Guarantee would establish a pathway to stable, unionized, living wage, employment for marginalized workers who consistently face discrimination. A Federal Job Guarantee would begin to close racial and gender income and wealth gaps, while meeting long-neglected community, physical, and social infrastructure needs. That is why, in February, Representative Ayanna  Pressley, in partnership with community organizers, activists, and experts, introduced HRes 145, calling on the federal government to guarantee “a legally enforceable right to fair, dignified, and decently-remunerated employment for all eligible individuals living in the United States.”

Our work builds on the shoulders of the many activists who saw an enforceable right to a quality, public-sector job as a key component of the struggle for civil and human rights. The Federal Job Guarantee Resolution continues a long, yet too often unheralded, tradition of Black women shaping history of economic and public policy. Through the last 80 years, it has been Black women at the forefront of demands for full and fair employment. Our collective works seeks to carry the torch boldly lit by justice seekers and civil rights icons like Sadie Alexander, Ella Baker, and Coretta Scott King.

In the 1940s, the nation’s first Black economist, Sadie Alexander, stressed that full employment was the key solution for economic injustice. Alexander knew our nation had the capacity and the potential to reach full employment, and made the justification plain and clear: “If full employment…could be obtained for the destructive purposes of war, why can we not unite to achieve it for the constructive purposes of peace?”

It was no accident that the activist energy surrounding a job guarantee coalesced in the wake of the Great Depression and World War II. Communities had seen the Works Progress Administration bring life back to their neighborhoods and cities. The Civilian Conservation Corps planted billions of trees; the Office of Price Administration managed inflation during a time of war. Sweeping economic goals were set and accomplished—but the promise of the New Deal and the post–World War II economy fell far short because communities of color and folks with disabilities were systematically left out.

That is precisely why the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom put a government guarantee to a job at the front of the civil rights agenda. The organizers of the March understood how economic justice and voting rights were tied together. And it was Coretta Scott King who brought the struggle from the streets to Capitol Hill through her organization, the National Committee for Full Employment. In partnership with Congressional Black Caucus cofounder Representative Augustus Hawkins, the movement for a federal job guarantee was driven by the fact that fair employment for Black workers could be made real only by full employment for all workers.

Hawkins and King made progress with the 1978 Humphrey-Hawkins Act. The law secured the Federal Reserve’s maximum employment mandate, and demanded that unemployment rates be reduced and that inequities in unemployment rates between labor market groups be reduced. But many of these provisions have lacked adequate enforcement and have been undermined by the forces of persistent systemic racism in the labor market. Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell admitted on the record during his Humphrey-Hawkins hearing testimony in 2020 that true full employment is a job for Congress—a job that goes beyond the Federal Reserve. We know that to be true. And we know that is a job Congress must take on with urgency.

We have an opportunity and responsibility to build on the legacy of the civil rights movement by abolishing the filibuster to pass critical voting rights legislation and establishing a federal job guarantee to finally reach full employment.

The Federal Job Guarantee Resolution is the lightning strike that Congress needs to return to the bold vision of Humphrey-Hawkins. It is well past time to update and drastically expand our understanding of socially necessary and useful work. This goes beyond a program-based approach to include robust historic investment in our caregivers and the care economy. That definition of work must include and center historically under-recognized, undervalued, and uncompensated labor, like domestic and social care, ecological preservation, and cultural, scientific, and creative work.

Congress has been presented with a framework that would guarantee the benefits of gainful, dignified employment, while considering the systemic barriers that have historically relegated people to jobs that exploit their humanity.

A federal job guarantee is about the promise of the civil rights movement, and the leaders—the Black women—who fought for this. As we mark the 58th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, we owe it to our ancestors, our neighbors, and generations to come to make this critical investment in the American people.

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