by Gertrude Schaffner Goldberg, Chair
Founded in 1994 as the only national organization whose goal is full employment, the National Jobs for All Coalition has consistently informed the public of the size and consequences of unemployment–a problem far more widespread and serious in its consequences than the official undercount reported by the US government. In addition to defining the problem, the Coalition has maintained that the solution–jobs for all at living wages–is both highly desirable and economically feasible. The barriers to full employment are political, not economic.
This report points out the ways in which the Coalition raises consciousness of the magnitude and peril of unemployment and the benefits of full employment. It discusses NJFAC’s action on some issues like Social Security that are related to its central focus on the availability and quality of jobs. Finally, it discusses the Coalition’s current Drive for Decent Work*, a simultaneous attack on the country’s “double deficits”–the chronic shortfall of jobs and public investment, the latter tragically demonstrated by the Hurricane Katrina disaster and the tragic collapse of the Minnesota bridge– not to mention the failure, unique among developed nations, to insure the health care of nearly 50 million people. .
Raising Consciousness of Unemployment and Full Employment
The founding of the Coalition was marked by a book, Jobs for All: A Plan for the Revitalization of America,, an up-to-date conception of the full employment ideal first developed during the 1940s Among other things, the concept first referred to a fully employed male labor force, whereas the current goal includes women and perforce, affordable, quality child care At the same time, the value of work in the home is recognized and adequate provision for those who provide this vital service is part of the Coalition’s definition of decent work. A recent project of the Coalition was a survey of full employment advocates in North America, Europe and Australia that provides current definitions of full employment and estimates of its desirability and feasibility. The results of that survey were presented at two conferences of social scientists in Europe, published in the Journal of Economic Issues in December 2007 and made available on the NJFAC website. This short piece serves as an introduction to thinking about the meaning and prospects for full employment on the part of women and men– varying in discipline and nationality– who are its advocates.
One roadblock to action is the unemployment undercount. Official statistics exclude more than half of the people who are jobless or forced to work part-time when they want full-time work. Part of the Coalition’s program is to break through this barrier. The NJFAC website follows up the monthly announcement of unemployment by the Labor Department with the “whole story.” Whereas most official and newspaper reports confine their count of the unemployed to people who work less than one hour a week in paid employment and are actually seeking a job, the Coalition’s count is more than double this figure because it includes workers who are involuntarily employed part-time and those who are want work but had not looked for it because they didn’t expect to find any, or weren’t able to work for a variety of reasons, such as lack of child care or transportation Our count also includes an estimate of the working poor, people who work year round, full-time for less than the four-person poverty standard. That standard is itself another underestimation of the problem, a much lower standard of poverty than that of nearly all the other wealthy nations of the world. The working poor number almost as many as the expanded unemployment count. Thus, while the number of officially unemployed people was 8.5 million in June 2008, the estimated total number who are unemployed, underemployed or disadvantaged workers was four times that much or 36.5 million.
Since the Labor Department began its monthly Job Vacancy Surveys, the Coalition also reports those figures. At this time, there are about five times the number of job seekers as there are available jobs. The Coalition lobbied Congress for job vacancy surveys and indeed succeeded in getting the Department of Labor to undertake demonstration vacancy surveys in selected locations that were succeeded by what is now a permanent, national program
The underestimation of unemployment and the undercount of the poor that results from a unrealistically low poverty standard have the political effect of supporting the status quo and discouraging political action. These government standards trivialize serious social problems and reduce the concern and political mobilization that would be more likely if the true size of the problems were known. A public aroused and organized on behalf of the unemployed and the poor would force officials to take steps to rid the nation of conditions that lead to other social ills–family violence and breakdown, mental and physical illness, substance abuse and crime. Not to mention the waste of the vital goods and services that unused labor could produce. One of the Coalition’s Quizzes, “Can You Count the Unemployed?” is, in addition to our unemployment report, a way of educating the public about the unemployment undercount.
Full Employment and Other National Problems
The Coalition has never ceased to call attention to unemployment and to propose full employment as a solution to many of the nation’s serious social problems. Yet, when the public was more concerned with some other problems that were related to unemployment and underemployment, NJFAC concentrated on those problems, always making a clear connection to joblessness. Two of these problem were the alleged Social Security “crisis” and welfare “reform.” Another was the disastrous government failure in public investment both before and after Hurricane Katrina.
The Coalition stepped up to the plate to protect Social Security because we believe that pension rights are essential to decent work. We also hold that the best economic insurance for Social Security is decent work for all who want it–more people working at better wages and paying taxes and fewer forced to retire early or collect disability insurance. At the headquarters of the National Conference of Churches, an organization with which NJFAC has cooperated since our inception, we convened representatives of organizations concerned with preserving Social Security in its present form as well as improving it, for example, by increasing benefits to lower-wage workers. We published Uncommon Sense pieces on the fraudulent claim of Social Security “crisis”, on its importance to women, to minorities and to young people and a Quiz: “Social Security: What’s in It for Young People?. See the Spanish version at this link. It is still one of the most visited spots on our website.
The Coalition’s website continues to be a resource for information regarding Social Security, both our own pieces and the work of other scholars and think tanks. It has been lauded for this service, including by the office then Minority leader Nancy Pelosi. The opposition to Social Security, led by members of Congress and the White House, is a hydra that regenerates after every setback. It threatens the retirement income of many of the elderly and younger people who have little or no other source of income. We must continue to the struggle against this hydra.
Nor did the Coalition sit on the sidelines when welfare “reform” required work without providing jobs or sufficient childcare. One of our earliest issues of Uncommon Sense was entitled, Welfare Reform: Where Are the Jobs? It was their work with the Coalition that inspired two members of its executive committee to write Washington’s New Poor Law, a book tracing the history of employment and public assistance policy from the time of the Great Depression until the present. One of the authors has written a piece with this title.
The Coalition was also stirred to action by Hurricane Katrina–the storm that demonstrated that the conservative mantra– “Government is the problem, not the solution”–had become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Katrina showed that a government that neglects its people as well as the nation’s physical and environmental resources does become the problem. Our response to Katrina–No More Katrinas: Uncle Sam We Need You–was a checklist of the federal government action needed to rebuild the stricken area and to reduce the effects of similar natural disasters. It was a chance to demonstrate the need for affirmative government on which so much of the progressive agenda hinges. That piece, too, directed to rebuilding and expanding the nation’s infrastructure. There is a Spanish version, too.
The Drive for Decent Work: The Heart of the Coalition’s Agenda
In contrast to these other important initiatives, the Coalition’s current, major project, the Shared Prosperity and the Drive for Decent Work, is directly related to NJFAC’s central goal of living wage jobs for all. At the same time, it carries forward the concern for both public investment and job creation that were part of our response to Katrina, and its rationale includes our ongoing effort to “tell the whole story of unemployment.” Thus, in developing the rationale for this proposal, the Coalition calls attention to the nation’s “double deficits”: the chronic and sometimes acute shortage of jobs for all who want to work and the neglect of public investment in our physical and human infrastructure. The examples of this latter neglect are rife:
♦ Neglect of child, elder and health care, education, housing;
♦ Neglect of public transit, bridges, levees, schools and other infrastructure
♦ Neglect of renewable energy and energy efficient production
♦ Neglect of environmental sustainability.
An important feature of the Coalition’s Drive for Decent Work is its identification of numerous proposals, including legislation pending in Congress, that would begin the task of reconstruction and simultaneously create millions of jobs.