Ep. 54 How to Really Help American Workers

Monday, November 20, 2017
Policy 360 - Sanford School of Public Policy, Duke University

The latest research on poverty indicates that a federal job guarantee is economically feasible. Such a guarantee could help address big American issues like  crumbling infrastructure while at the same time ensuring workers aren’t living in poverty. Kelly Brownell talks about the topic with William “Sandy” Darity, the director of the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University.

How is the U.S. doing when it comes to unemployment? 

The primary issue is that we have recurring cycles of high levels of joblessness in the American economy. We usually refer that as “cyclical unemployment”, but we also have something that we refer to as “structural unemployment”, which are segments of the population that are continuously subjected to high rates of joblessness.

This is typically members of our national community who are faced with discrimination, so this would include Black Americans … individuals who have been recently-incarcerated … folks who have physical disabilities … [and] military veterans .

We can explain much of the poverty in the United States not by people necessarily having no jobs, although that’s a component of poverty, but also having poorly-paid jobs. And so, we’ve tried to craft a proposal or policy that we think could address both the issue of joblessness, as well as the issue of low-income employment.

Is there a difference in employment when you look at the data by race?

…Essentially, since we first began to collect statistics on unemployment by race, we found that the Black unemployment rate tends to be twice as high as the White unemployment rate. And this is also the case, even if you take into account educational attainment.

If you look at every tier of educational attainment, you still find a two-to-one ratio with respect to the unemployment rate.

There are [also] circumstances in which Whites who never finished high school- actually have a lower unemployment rate than blacks who have had some college education.

So, I’ve typically said that the Black/White unemployment ratio is actually an index of the degree of discrimination in the American economy, and this is a pervasive and persistent phenomena.

Is affirmative action helping?

No, the gulf doesn’t appear to change. It seems to be impervious to a wide range of social policies that have been introduced over the course of, say, the past 50 years.

 What do you propose?

Well, one thing that we’ve proposed is the notion of a federal job guarantee. So, the premise here is that every American who would want employment could find a job because the federal government would ensure that there would be employment available for them.

This is actually a replication and extension of what was done in the 1930s under the aegis of the Works Progress Administration, where I believe the Works Progress Administration succeeded in putting approximately 30-40% of the persons who were unemployed during the Great Depression to work.

The premise here is that we want to make it possible for 100% of individuals who might be subjected to unemployment to have a job and we’d like to do it permanently, rather than on a temporary basis (where the WPA was treated more as an emergency measure then as a sustained public option for employment. )

And that’s exactly what we have in mind- is a public option for employment.

What would the U.S. government do to create such job opportunities for people?

I think that the first part of this would be to identify what the unmet social needs are. I think that one of the important arenas would be what Derek Hamilton at the New School and I have referred to as “the human infrastructure”. This would involve the creation of jobs … especially child care and elder care, which I think are prohibitively expensive for many people to purchase, and as a consequence, [many Americans] take on the burden of having to absorb their full days with looking after aging relatives, or looking after small children.

So, if [the U.S. government] could provide a professional cadre of individuals who could provide elder care and child care, that would be a tremendous benefit to all Americans.

Listen to the full conversation here.