Fifty years ago last week, Martin Luther King Jr. led the 1963 "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom." Yes, jobs! I find it especially appropriate that Labor Day, a national holiday "dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers," rides on the calendar coattails of King's historic march.
For the civil rights leaders, the fight for justice was not limited to providing equal voting rights for all Americans and abstaining from discriminatory practices against African-Americans. A federally funded Job Guarantee program was a central theme articulated by King and Bayard Rustin (the organizer of the 1963 March on Washington and one of this year's recipients [posthumously] of the Presidential Medal of Freedom).
In a 1965 interview, King said, "We must develop a federal program of public works, retraining and jobs for all - so that none, white or black, will have cause to feel threatened. At the present time, thousands of jobs a week are disappearing in the wake of automation and other production efficiency techniques."
In 1968, he also said, "We need an economic bill of rights. This would guarantee a job to all people who want to work and are able to work ... It would mean creating certain public-service jobs."
Unfortunately, mainstream economists have been successful in spreading their deficit phobia in Washington and have kept the United States from implementing one of the most socially and economically transformative policies since the New Deal. The so-called "sound finance" advocates (deficit hawks and deficit doves) fail to understand the meaning of financial sovereignty, or to recognize the difference between currency issuer and currency users, or to accept the logical implications of sectoral balance analysis.
Five years after the Great Recession, Congress has spent hundreds of billions of dollars on market-friendly, supply-side, incentive-driven policies that have failed to put a dent on unemployment, and the Fed has poured more than $29 trillion into propping up Wall Street. Yet an effective Job Guarantee program has been ignored for five decades for the same old excuses (it is too expensive, wasteful, inefficient, inflationary, etc.), which have been fully refuted by the Modern Money Theory community.
In a recent paper, I put together a cost estimation for a Job Guarantee program that would employ 23.4 million underemployed individuals, including those who are officially unemployed, those marginally attached to the labor force and the involuntary part-time workers. The proposal contained a three-tier JG wage structure such that skilled workers earn $21 per hour, semi-skilled workers earn $18 per hour and unskilled workers earn $15 per hour. Additionally, JG workers would receive an annual benefits package of $10,000. Adding another $50 billion to account for the program's material costs and assuming that the unemployment pool is roughly evenly divided between skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled workers, I find that the net annual cost of the program would be only $593.8 billion, or 3.93 percent of GDP.
That is less than $600 billion a year to end unemployment, reduce unemployment-related social costs (mental health, suicide, family breakdown, crime, incarceration, etc.), and bring tangible hope to economically disadvantaged communities.
Now, is there anybody in Washington today who has the courage to truly honor the legacy of Martin Luther King, Bayard Rustin and A. Philip Randolph - not with medals, flags, postage stamps and endless speeches but with real action, a Job Guarantee program?
Those of us advocating for social justice as workers, teachers, journalists, lawyers, engineers and citizens from all walks of life must continue building this social movement to guarantee productive employment for all.
Fadhel Kaboub is an assistant professor of economics at Denison University in Granville, Ohio, and a research associate at the Levy Economics Institute in New York and the Center for Full Employment and Price Stability in Missouri (www.kaboub.com).