By L. Randall Wray

“It was obdurate government callousness to misery that first stoked the flames of rage and frustration. With unemployment a scourge in Negro ghettoes, the government still tinkers with half-hearted measures, refuses still to become an employer of last resort. It asks the business community to solve the problems as though its past failures qualified it for success.” –Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in his last letter requesting support for the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom”

In recent days, the Job Guarantee has been thrust into public discussion, thanks in large part to Jesse Myerson’s Rolling Stone article—see here.

Today, on Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday, it is important to recall that the last time the Job Guarantee captured the public’s imagination was in the early 1960s. Dr. King recognized that access to jobs is a critical component of civil rights—something also recognized by the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Article 23 guarantees that:

(1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment. (2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work. (3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection. (4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

Last week I included a long quote from the 1967 President’s National Advisory Commission On Rural Poverty that pushed for a Job Guarantee program at a decent living wage. Unfortunately, by that time, the push for the Job Guarantee was already losing its momentum. There are a number of complicated reasons. The War on Poverty was underway, which, as Hyman Minsky argued at the time, was based on the belief that the main problem with the poor was their own character. They needed more education (especially in early childhood), more training, better behavior, and temporary assistance. The rising postwar tide would lift all boats. Civil Rights legislation passed in 1964 would ameliorate discrimination. Countercyclical fiscal policy would tame the business cycle, eliminating unemployment due to insufficient aggregate demand. We didn’t need a jobs program.

Dr. King knew better. There would be no equality of opportunity without concerted effort to provide jobs for all. The Job Guarantee had long been part of his push for Civil Rights. He was right. Here we are a half century later and African Americans still suffer from depression-level unemployment rates.

I was shocked by the reaction of many “liberals” to the piece by Myerson. You see, they say, the Job Guarantee proposal is just too “messy”, too much “trouble”. Here’s Matt Yglesia’s argument: it is easier to give handouts to the poor than to provide them with jobs. In Dr. King’s day one might have argued: why give them civil rights? It’s just so much more trouble than giving them handouts. All they need is welfare, not opportunities.

Back in 2001 my colleague Mat Forstater collected a lot of the writings of Dr. King that made the case for guaranteed access to jobs. See his article, “Public Service Job Assurance: A Most Fitting Tribute to Dr. King”, Special Report 01/01 . I’m going to repeat some of his arguments and the quotes from Dr. King here—a bibliography is attached below.

Forstater: Not many folks remember that the 1963 “March on Washington” was officially named the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.”  This detail often gets lost amid the important celebration of the general achievement and highlights such as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” oration.  Indeed, the theme of job creation runs though Dr. King’s writings.  Perhaps no single policy could have as great a social and economic impact on the African American community—and the entire country—as federally funded job assurance for every person ready and willing to work.  This is a policy approach that was explicitly supported by Dr. King, and that is currently receiving attention in economic and policy circles. In an article in Look published just after his assassination (King, 1968), Dr. King wrote that: “We call our demonstration a campaign for jobs and income because we feel that the economic question is the most crucial that black people, and poor people generally, are confronting.”  Thirty-three years later, at the peak of a peacetime economic expansion heralded as the longest and strongest in recent history, not only is the African American unemployment rate stuck at twice that of whites, but at around 8% that figure remains at a rate that would be considered evidence of a deep recession were it to hold for society as a whole.

King: There is a literal depression in the Negro community. When you have mass unemployment in the Negro community, it’s called a social problem; when you have mass unemployment in the white community, it’s called a depression. The fact is, there is a major depression in the Negro community. The unemployment rate is extremely high, and among Negro youth, it goes up as high as forty percent in some cities. (King, 1968)

King: Economic expansion alone cannot do the job of improving the employment situation of Negroes. It provides the base for improvement but other things must be constructed upon it, especially if the tragic situation of youth is to be solved. In a booming economy Negro youth are afflicted with unemployment as though in an economic crisis. They are the explosive outsiders of the American expansion… There are also some Negro youth who have faced so many closed doors and so many crippling defeats that they have lost motivation. For those youth who are alienated from the routines of work, there should be… work situations which permit flexibility… until they can manage the demands of the typical workplace…  The quest of the Negro male for employment was always frustrating. If he lacked skill, he was only occasionally wanted because such employment as he could find had little regularity and even less remuneration. If he had a skill, he also had his black skin, and discrimination locked doors against him. In the competition for scarce jobs he was a loser because he was born that way. (King, 1967)

Forstater: In addressing these tremendous challenges, Dr. King’s writings have a laser-like focus on job creation as addressing multiple concerns and carrying multiple benefits:

King: The nation will also have to find the answer to full employment, including a more imaginative approach than has yet been conceived for neutralizing the perils of automation. Today, as the skilled and semiskilled Negro attempts to mount the ladder of economic security, he finds himself in competition with the white working man at the very time when automation is scrapping forty thousand jobs a week. Though this is perhaps the inevitable product of social and economic upheaval, it is an intolerable situation, and Negroes will not long permit themselves to be pitted against white workers for an ever-decreasing supply of jobs. The energetic and creative expansion of work opportunities, in both the public and private sectors of our economy, is an imperative worthy of the richest nation on earth, whose abundance is an embarrassment as long as millions of poor are imprisoned and constantly self-renewed within an expanding population. (King, 1963)

Forstater: Dr. King reiterated over and over again his proposal that “government… become an employer of last resort” (King, 1971 [1963): “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” (King, 1968):

King: 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….Black and white, we will all be harmed unless something grand and imaginative is done. The unemployed, poverty-stricken white man must be made to realize that he is in the very same boat with the Negro. Together, they could exert massive pressure on the government to get jobs for all. Together they could form a grand alliance. Together, they could merge all people for the good of all. (King, 1965)

Forstater: In “Where do We Go From Here?” (1967), Dr. King elaborated his vision of Public Service Job Assurance. First, development of skills and education are outcomes, not prerequisites, of the program. Second, the jobs are producing community and public services that are in short supply and that benefit the neediest communities. Third, the program generates incomes for individuals and families that have unmet needs. Fourth, there are numerous social-psychological benefits for individuals, families, communities, and the nation:

King: The big, new, attractive thrust of Negro employment is in the nonprofessional services. A high percentage of these jobs is in public employment. The human services—medical attention, social services, neighborhood amenities of various kinds—are in scarce supply in this country, especially in localities of poverty. The traditional way of providing manpower for these jobs—degree-granting programs—cannot fill all the niches that are opening up. The traditional job requirements are a barrier to attaining an adequate supply of personnel, especially if the number of jobs expands to meet existing need. The expansion of the human services can be the missing industry that will soak up the unemployment that persists in the United States. [It can be the] the missing industry that would change the employment scene in America. The expansion of human services is that industry—it is labor intensive, requiring manpower immediately rather than heavy capital investment as in construction or other fields; it fills a great need not met by private enterprise; it involves labor that can be trained and developed on the job. The growth of the human services should be rapid. It should be developed in a manner insuring that the jobs that will be generated will not primarily be for professionals with college and postgraduate diplomas but for people from the neighborhoods who can perform important functions for their neighbors. As with private enterprise, rigid credentials have monopolized the entry routes into human services employment. But… less educated people can do many of the tasks now performed by the highly educated as well as many other new and necessary tasks. (King, 1967, original emphasis, pp. 197-98)

In another piece, Forstater brought Dr. King’s proposal up to the present, by analyzing the problems faced at the end of the century—fifty years after Dr. King’s push for civil rights; see Mat Forstater: “The Full Employment Approach to Reducing Black Poverty and Unemployment in the United States”,  Working Paper No. 7, Mar 2000:

Darity, et al. (1994) argue that with the transformation from industrial capitalism to what they call managerial capitalism or managerial society, the Black “underclass” is no longer functioning as a reserve army of labor. This is leading to increasing “social unwantedness of young black males. And this social unwantedness explains how policies evolve that act to selectively incapacitate or exterminate the superfluous elements of the labor pool” (Darity, et al., 1994, pp. 59-60). As Myers put it elsewhere:

There is no doubt that declining labor force participation and growing unemployment are signals of increased marginalization of at least one significant segment within the black community, the black “underclass.” This “underclass” has become the epitome of superfluous labor in the sense   that its members are neither wanted nor needed for the efficient operation of contemporary job markets. Increasingly, these people — who disproportionately populate the prisons, drug-abuse clinics, mental hospitals, and other repositories for the unwanted and disenfranchised of the world — have become the literal hemorrhoids of domestic policy making. Uncomfortably burdensome in their initial stages, these hidden inconveniences eventually erupt into painful  reminders of failed policies and social neglect. Myers, 1989, p. 82)

The “unemployable” “underclass” disciplines the working class not by threatening to take away jobs but rather by serving as an example that “this could be you”. Forstater goes on by quoting from the 1996 “The State of Black America” in which The National Urban League calls for a policy that “has a laser-like focus on jobs for the inner city poor”:

Make no mistake, inner city folk want to work. We’ve got to spread the job action around if inner  city folk are to work — and if cities are to work. There is no macroeconomic policy, no economic growth scenario, no model cities approach, no black capitalism strategy and no enterprise zone experiment imaginable that can match the Depression-era Works Progress Administration in jumpstarting hope by driving unemployment down in a hurry. [There is] nothing un-American about spending public money to fill gaping holes in the labor market.

Finally, quoting Short, Forstater argues that the workers in the JG program must have the opportunity to initiate and develop public and community service projects:

We must develop socially useful forms of work, which enhance the creativity and involvement of  workers … The most rewarding jobs are those which give opportunities for creativity, provide a living wage and have a beneficial effect. People like to do, and like to be seen to be doing, good works. Our cities provide numerous opportunities for congenial employment, from beautifying our cities with gardens to mending footpaths and building playgrounds … Real job-creation schemes involve the workers in the goals and strategies of the employment. Let us allow people the dignity of being involved in identifying, as well as doing, useful employment.” (Short, p. 127)

At the annual meeting of economists (ASSA conference held in Philadelphia in January), I participated in a panel on the JG. Darrick Hamilton presented work that he had done jointly with Sandy Darity. He brings our understanding of the problems faced by black Americans up to date:

The U.S. is characterized by a longstanding pattern of large structural racial inequality that deepens further as a result of economic downturn. The current unemployment rate for whites is 6.4 percent while the current black rate is 13 percent — this continues a structural trend where   the black rate remains roughly twice as high as the white rate.  Generally, an eight percent unemployment rate is indicative of a crisis at the national level.  Yet, over the past 40 years, there has been only one year in which the black rate has been below eight percent.   In contrast, there has been fewer than five years in which the white rate has reached eight percent.  Thus, blacks are in a perpetual state of employment crisis.

While many would like to believe that the Civil Rights Act plus decades of improving race relations might have reduced discrimination in labor markets that is largely wishful thinking:

Wisconsin is a state that outlaws employer use of a criminal record for most jobs, yet, among young males of comparable race, experience, and education, audit testers with a criminal record received half as many employment callbacks as testers without a record.  Nonetheless, race was found to be more stigmatizing than incarceration.  White testers with criminal records had a slightly higher callback rate than black testers without criminal records.

That’s right, employers would rather hire a white criminal than a black with similar qualifications for work. And as Hamilton explains, “Education is also not a shield from unemployment for young blacks.  Among 18-25 year olds, white high school dropouts have an unemployment rate that is 10-12 percentage points lower than blacks, who have completed some college.” Sandy Darity has pointed out that “…if every black boy in America where to ‘pull his paints up,’ it might be aesthetically pleasing, but it would do nothing to address the racial employment gap or the racial wealth gap.” This is shown by very careful field experiments, as Hamilton argued in his presentation:

Economists Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan …use a double-blind strategy that avoids the use of human “testers” by attaching fictitious names, those with black and those with white sounding names, to similarly credentialed paired resumes. They find that resumes with white sounding names received a 50 percent higher call back rate than comparably skilled resumes with black sounding names.  Perhaps even more telling, the “better” quality resumes with black sounding names received fewer callbacks than “lower” quality resumes with white sounding names. 

Following Dr. King, Darity and Hamilton call for a JG:

The federal government should establish a National Investment Employment Corps offering all citizens 18 years of age and above an employment guarantee at a minimum salary of $20,000 with $10,000 in benefits, including medical coverage and retirement support.  An upper bound estimate of the expense of the program can be established by putting all 15 million persons unemployed at the peak of the economic crisis at a mean salary [program cost] of $40,000,  inclusive of materials and equipment per worker, with $10,000 in benefits. The total compensation package would amount to $750 billion, which is less than the first $787 billion stimulus package… Correspondingly, the net expenses of the job guarantee program would be   reduced because of wide array of cost savings from other social programs that either could be reduced or eliminated. Consider that in 2011 alone, federal antipoverty programs (Medicaid, unemployment insurance, etc.) cost approximately $746 billion…

With the federal government acting as employer of last resort, unemployment compensation funding could be slashed and antipoverty program funding – including free and reduced lunch  subsidies and food stamps, could be reduced greatly (indeed, a job guarantee could eliminate    both working and jobless poverty simultaneously). Furthermore, the income paid to the    employees of the National Investment Employment Corps would restore tax bases at the state     and municipal levels, alleviating their current budget crises. The federal job guarantee also would moderate significantly the home foreclosure crisis, and the medical coverage provided as a job benefit would provide an implicit “public option” leading to the coverage of millions of uninsured Americans. 

Hamilton and Darity would decentralize the program, using state and local governments for implementation:

States and local municipalities can conduct an inventory of their needs and develop a job bank of  tasks.  The program could give priority to the most urgent projects to aid the most distressed communities.  The work to be done by employees of the National Investment Employment Corps would address the nation’s human and physical infrastructure requirements.  This could include the construction, upgrade, maintenance, staffing and provision of high quality schools, hospitals   and other public human infrastructure, and the extension, repair and maintenance of the public transportation infrastructure, e.g. roads, bridges, and dams.  In 2009 the American Society of  Civil Engineers (ASCE) gave the country a grade of D on its physical infrastructure.

The benefits of the program go far beyond provision of income to those employed:

The proposal advanced here would function as an automatic stabilizer in good and bad times.  In other words, the program will expand and contract counter cyclically.  Furthermore, the program would structurally change the U.S. economy away from low wage jobs – a sector in which an expanding global economy is making the U.S. increasingly less competitive – towards more moderate and high wage jobs.

In addition, a federal job guarantee program would mitigate the personal and familial costs of damaged mental health and other stressors faced by the unemployed. The unemployed themselves often say that they would rather be paid to work than receive unemployment compensation. A Huffington Post article by Delaney and Nasripour dated February 24, 2010 sums up these sentiments with a quote from a 45 year old former casino worker, Glenn Blackburn, “Put me to work digging ditches or helping build roads.  Anything is preferable to sitting on my butt.  This would give those of us on unemployment back our pride and actually accomplish something with the money being spent. There is a work force of a million people just sitting idle waiting for something to do. That is a massive amount of lost labor that could be fixing America’s infrastructure.  Instead of unemployment hire me to do that.”

As I argued last week, nearly half of the American population already supports the Job Guarantee—and this is with no official support from Washington and virtually no discussion by our “thought leaders” and official media. Among black Americans, who suffer much of the trauma of joblessness, the support is much higher. Here’s the table from the HuffPost survey:

Only 14% of blacks are opposed to the JG. See also here:

“Although conservative news outlets mocked the proposal, the Huffington Post poll suggests a broad base of support for government-subsidized full employment. Such a policy has never been attempted before, but advocates of the job guarantee say that similar government job creation programs have reduced poverty and led to economic growth in countries like Argentina and India. In fact, extreme poverty fell by 25% when a government job creation program was attempted in Argentina, according to Bard College economist Pavlina Tcherneva. Duke University public policy professor William Darity Jr. has argued that a job guarantee would reduce poverty in the United States while also ensuring that essential public sector work got done. “A federal job guarantee at non-poverty wages … for all citizens would enable the nation to meet both its physical and human infrastructure needs,” wrote Darity in a July 2013 New York Times piece. ”Workers under the public service employment system could repair roads and bridges, provide high quality day care services, build and maintain the public schools and rehabilitate our damaged postal system.” At least one sitting member of Congress is pushing for a similar proposal. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., has proposed a so-called “Full Employment and Training Act” which would create a government trust fund to finance job creation.

The JG proposal is not just about providing income. It is about securing a fundamental Civil Right, an internationally recognized Human Right—the right to work, the right to full participation in our economy and our society, the right to earn an income. Welfare hand-outs cannot secure that right. A rising tide doesn’t secure that right. More training and education don’t secure that right. Wishful thinking and reference to invisible handwaves do not secure that right.

Securing human rights is “messy”. It is “a lot of trouble”. There was nothing easy about eliminating slavery. The progress made in the U.S. civil rights movement that culminated in the 1964 Civil Rights Act was “messy”, and it “troubled” a lot of people. Dr. King was assassinated trying to secure civil rights. Remember that U.S. troops had to accompany black students to secure the right to an education. Recall that National Guard troops fired on students trying to secure the right to protest an unpopular war. The Free Speech movement was a “lot of trouble”. Indeed, democracy is messy, a lot of trouble, but worth the effort.

For more on the JG, see my piece in the Nation.

As an antidote to those who argue that austerity is the path to progress, watch this four part video on “Red Ted”, E. G. Theodore, the Australian Federal Treasurer who came to recognize the folly of orthodox prescriptions to the Great Depression: . Be sure to pay attention to Ted Wheelright’s interviews, and watch for the unemployment graph at the end of part 4. While Australia stayed on the austerity path all through the Great Depression—with massive unnecessary suffering resulting—she learned the lesson of WWII and enjoyed nearly full employment for decades until the austerians regained control of policy-making.

Bibliography of Work Cited by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

King, Jr., Martin Luther, 1963, Why We Can’t Wait, New York: New American Library.

Interview with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., 1965, Playboy, January, 117ff.

King, Jr. Martin Luther, 1967, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, New York: Harper & Row.

King, Jr., Martin Luther, 1968, “Showdown for Nonviolence,” Look, Vol. 32, April 16, pp. 23-25.

Dr. King’s last letter requesting support for his March on Washington, quoted in Robert Goodman, 1971, After the Planners, New York: Simon and Schuster, p. 32.

King, Jr., Martin Luther, 1972 [1968], “New Sense of Direction,” Worldview, 15, April.

Other Works Cited

Darity, Jr., William A. and Samuel L. Myers, Jr. (with Emmett D. Carson and William Sabol), 1994, The Black Underclass: Critical Essays on Race and Unwantedness, New York: Garland.

Darity, Jr., William A. and Darrick Hamilton, 2001, “A Test of the Functionality of Discrimination,” presented at Allied Social Science Annual Meetings, New Orleans, January.

Myers, Jr., Samuel L. “How Voluntary is Black Unemployment and Black Labor Force Withdrawal?” In The Question of Discrimination, edited by Steven Shulman and William A. Darity, Jr. Wesleyan University Press, 1989.

National Urban League, The State of Black America 1996, New York: National Urban League, Inc., 1996.

Short, John R. The Humane City, London: Blackwell, 1989.