Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Case for A Full Employment Policy

On his blog, Economic Reform, 2008, Ben Leet has published a wide-ranging essay that gives an overview of past government policies to address unemployment, and options for creating a full employment program. In his essay, The Case for a Full Employment Policy, Leet writes:

We are a very wealthy nation, and we can well afford to employ all unemployed and willing workers through public employment. The social benefits would be revolutionary...

On December 1, 2008, the National Bureau of Economic Research announced to the public that the U.S. economy has been in economic recession since a year ago, December, 2007. We face a possible social breakdown similar to 1932. In October of 2008 6.5% of the workers are unemployed (10,100,000 workers), 7.1% are underemployed or discouraged from looking for work (11,700,000 workers), and still another 16.2% are working full-time for wages that pay less than the poverty rate for a family of four (17,600,000 workers). The combined total is 29.8 % of the workforce, or 39,400,000 workers. Many economists expect additional workers to fall into these categories in the coming months.(1) For every job opening listed there are six unemployed, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

When there are more workers than jobs, or fewer jobs than workers, what should society do? Should society let joblessness skyrocket with all the negative social hardships, or provide jobs through public expenditures? Private business owners downsize their operations during economic downturns. The surplus labor force --- the unemployed --- demand the right to earn a living. The practical interests and property rights of affluent business owners conflict with the human rights of workers and non-owners. Owners cannot be forced to hire unneeded workers. Citizens cannot be left to starve. Public adjustments must be made. A social choice has to be managed.

Toward the end of Leet's essay, there's a good typology of different types of public service jobs that could be created through public job creation.

Government Sponsored Jobs
A national public full employment program is proposed by Professor L. Randall Wray in his book Understanding Modern Money. He calls for the federal government to be the “Employer of Last Resort” and the jobs it creates would pay workers a “Basic Public Service Wage.” The following are job positions that could be created:

1. Companions to the elderly, orphans, physically disabled and mental health patients. Each companion would attend classes or seminars in caregiving, and perhaps also attend group discussions with other ELR companions. This position would serve as a preparation for private sector jobs.

2. Public school classroom assistants who tutor in reading, writing and math. Field trip aides for classes on out-of-school excursions. After-school assistants in academic support and/or art and recreation programs.

3. Child care assistants, and Head Start and preschool assistants.

4. Safety monitors and facilitators assigned to public schools, playgrounds, transit hubs, downtown areas.

5. Neighborhood clean-up crews for abandoned properties, and highway clean-up crews.

6. Auxiliary assistants in low-income housing restoration projects such as home insulation projects.

7. Public library assistants.

8. Environmental safety monitors testing for lead paint contamination, water quality, beach contamination. Aides for restoration of ‘super fund’ clean-up sites and other environmental clean-up projects.

9. National and state park improvement teams.

10. Artists, musicians and performers in community beautification projects, and performing in schools.

11. Community and cultural historians.

12. Public assistants collecting information and monitoring compliance with government regulations.

13. Prison education assistants, and liaisons to juvenile detention facilities.

This list is drawn mostly from L. Randall Wray’s book Understanding Modern Money. Wray concludes that, “The federal government would simply provide as much funding as necessary to let every state and local government hire as many new employees as they desired, with only two constraints: these jobs could not replace current employment, and the could only pay BPSW [basic public service wages] (or at least the federal government could reimburse wages at BPSW rate). Finally a similar offer could be made to qualifying non-governmental non-profit organizations, such as AmeriCorps, VISTA, the Student Community Service Program, the National Senior Service Corps, the Peace Corps, the National Health Service Corps, school districts, and Meals on Wheels.”
As we think about all the work in the US that needs doing, let's bear in mind that the people who do it should be compensated fairly. Most advocates for full employment would agree that wage levels for jobs created in a public job creation program should at least be living wages, as suggested by Wray and others.

In our job creation plan, The Drive for Decent Work, the National Jobs for All Coalition has called for new publicly-created jobs that "pay prevailing wages for comparable work in the private sector, with collective bargaining rights, labor protections and vacation time." (p. 11) Also, Robert Kuttner has called for making every human service job in the United States a decent job with good wages and benefits.

Thanks very much to Ben Leet for his efforts to inform and activate the public on full employment issues.

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