America’s founding sin and its continuing greatest failure is the racialized inequality that has been built into our economy. And, as the 2016 election made clear, the Democratic Party has struggled to imagine an agenda that addresses race and class at the same time. This failure left open political terrain that could be occupied by the racism and corporatism of Donald Trump.
Done correctly, a good-jobs guarantee would largely eliminate poverty in the United States. It would directly and radically improve the lives of long-term unemployed and “unemployable” people—particularly the black, latinx, and Native workers who suffer from both structural and malicious discrimination. It would combat gender inequities. It would facilitate a just transition to a carbon-free economy. It would strengthen our economy’s long-term trajectory and people’s daily lives by creating transit, energy, and communications infrastructure. And it would enrich Americans’ lives by funding child, elder, and special-needs care.
A good-job guarantee would pay for much of itself by eliminating the need for unemployment insurance and for many welfare programs. It would also lower the costs associated with the opioid epidemic and our system of mass incarceration. At the same time, the job guarantee would improve the performance of the private sector by increasing consumer demand, upgrading physical and human resources, and reducing the fluctuations of business cycles. For employees, it would remove the fear of firing that can prevent individuals from fighting sexual harassment, discrimination, corporate abuse, and anti-union activity. It would also tighten labor markets, putting employees in a strong position to improve wages and working conditions.
And it would overhaul our politics by positioning progressives and the Democratic Party as genuine advocates for shared prosperity. A good-jobs guarantee is, in a sense, the succinct sum total of much of the progressive movement’s economic agenda.
Today, on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. King, we should recommit ourselves to completing the great unfinished work of the civil-rights movement. And there is a political path forward. In just a few years, we can push a good-jobs guarantee from white papers to a presidential signature, but we have to start now.
The concept of a good-jobs guarantee has a proud and privileged place in the history of American progressivism. The first article in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1944 proposal for an Economic Bill of Rights was the “right to employment,” building on the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration, which employed over 8 million people. After her husband was assassinated, Coretta Scott King continued campaigning for economic justice and the right to a job in an effort that helped lead to the 1978 Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act, the ambition of which has never been fully realized.
The idea of a good-jobs guarantee is, after being lost for decades, returning to the limelight. Scholars, led by William Darity and Darrick Hamilton, are articulating updated and concrete versions of the vision. Mainstream news outlets are reporting on their work. And ambitious politicians—most notably, Senator Kristin Gillibrand, a presidential aspirant, and Richard Winfield, a congressional candidate in rural Georgia—are recognizing its political appeal.
One element of this appeal is the proposal’s simplicity: Any US resident who wants one can get a job, funded by the federal government, that pays a fair wage and provides good benefits. Mark Paul, Darity and Hamilton estimate that the program would employ approximately 13 million people for a cost of approximately $650 billion a year. That is to say, this transformative intervention into American society and political economy would cost less than our current military budget.
The GOP’s embrace of a $1.5 trillion, deficit-financed tax break for the rich finally destroyed the myth that Republicans care about deficits. And America’s $17 trillion national debt, in the face of low interest rates and near-zero inflation, should similarly destroy the myth that deficit spending is dangerous. To the contrary, as economist Stephanie Kelton points out, a public deficit necessarily corresponds to a private-sector surplus. Kelton even argues we should rebrand the public deficit as a “non-government surplus.” The good-jobs guarantee would indeed create enormous surplus for the American people: not only good jobs for all who want them, but also public goods that promote human flourishing and happiness.
Left-wing doctors have for decades been advocating for a single-payer health-care system. But the proposal is suddenly on the verge of becoming dogma within the Democratic Party. Why? How? Although Representative John Conyers had recruited a small army of cosponsors to his legislation over the years, it achieved political liftoff when Senator Bernie Sanders, supported by a few key organizations, placed the issue squarely in the center of American discourse, and forced the Democratic Party to move with him.
We now have the opportunity to do the same with the good-jobs guarantee. Although the last election reminded us how treacherous political forecasting can be, Democrats appear poised for a landslide victory in 2018 and, facing a historically unpopular president, can reasonably hope to repeat the feat in 2020. This year, we can put the good-jobs guarantee onto the political agenda by conducting a mass popular-education campaign, passing city-council resolutions, introducing a bill in Congress, and insisting that the new anti-Trump candidates running for office embrace the proposal now—while they have little to lose and before the corporate influences of Washington, DC, cow them into moderation.
During 2019, progressives will need to move beyond resistance and begin articulating our vision for a post-Trump world. The many vibrant political formations that have emerged since 2017 can continue to excite their membership by making the articulation of a good-jobs guarantee a small-d democratic project. What would you do with a trillion dollars? How would you employ 15 million people? These questions are profound organizing opportunities, because they ask our interlocutors to dream first and make plans second.
A popular-education campaign, directed by no central authority but embraced by many, could generate the enthusiasm and energy necessary to establish the good-jobs guarantee as a viable political concept by next year. Then, the Democratic candidates for president will be forced to embrace it. In 2008, SEIU made support for universal health care a prerequisite for receiving its endorsement; John Edwards obliged, forcing Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to do the same. The ACA was law within two years. This model can and should be repeated.
But a different lesson must also be learned from 2009–10: That windows of opportunity can close as quickly as they open. If the electoral landslides of 2018 and 2020 are to yield more than those of 2006 and 2008, it will be because progressives have, long before Inauguration Day, laid out a robust vision for social justice in America and have forced the Democratic Party to embrace it.
A good-jobs guarantee should be at the center of that vision. Not only because of the enormous blow it would strike against economic and racial injustice in this country, but also because it advances the priorities of so many interest groups within the famously fractious party. Universal free childcare. National broadband. Mass transit. Public housing. A green economy. Genuine full employment—for all communities. An end to American poverty. In one of the richest nations in human history, these should not be just the stuff of memos, but realities of our lives.