By Ted Wachtel
A woman interviewed in Gillette, Wyoming — the self-proclaimed Energy Capital of the Nation, in the reddest heart of Trumpland — touched my heart with her sincere concern that, “nobody cares about us.” That’s how lots of Americans are feeling and we need to listen.
The woman explained how coal mines were the primary employer in Gillette and how the number of operating mines and the demand for coal had fallen. She recalled, with a bright smile, how she once had a great job and how proud she was of how good she was at doing it. But her smile slips away as she recounts how she and many of her friends have lost their jobs and now struggle.
She explained that there aren’t many good job options in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, which proudly produces forty percent of America’s coal. If President Biden keeps his promise to curtail fossil fuels, Gillette is a ghost town in the making.
Sometimes You Just Gotta Do What You Gotta Do
Steve Gray, another resident of Gillette, recently phoned CNN to express his concern about what was going to happen to his city when the mines shut down — and much to his surprise CNN sent a reporter to talk with him.
“If I’m not driving, hauling these guys back and forth to trains, I’m not getting paid. And as you can see with all these locomotives all lined up out here how bad it is…Lost pickups, got a divorce, bank accounts are drained, lost my house…you know, all the repossessions. It was tough….I don’t like asking for government assistance. It’s degrading to myself when I have to ask someone for help. I don’t like it myself. Sometimes you just gotta do what you gotta do.”
That’s a remarkable decision for a Red Stater like Steve Gray. Historically, many Americans have perceived accepting welfare as a sign of laziness and moral failure — especially among Black and immigrant populations. Political scientist Jake Haselswerdt’s research indicates that “even those who profess not to believe in racial stereotypes about people’s work ethic still assume that the absence of a work requirement makes a welfare policy more likely to benefit blacks and immigrants.”
Politicians exploit those stereotypes in their political messaging — encouraging the tensions that now threaten the foundations of our democracy. People in places like Gillette and in abandoned factory towns across America are frightened and desperate and vulnerable to those seeking political power, who would manipulate their fears and desperation to their own ends.
It’s about a scarcity of jobs and the survival of middle-class Americans. Fears of joblessness and the loss of the American dream exacerbate racial and ethnic tensions.
A Job Guarantee
In my soon-to-be-published book, “A Kinder Gentler Capitalism: Enterprise in a New Reality” I explore the possibility of federally guaranteed employment.
The late Nobel Prize-winning economist William Vikerey described unemployment as “equivalent to vandalism.” Unemployment defaces the lives of individuals, families, and communities — while economists treat unemployment as “natural” and devise policies around some “optimal” level of joblessness. The idea that there is an appropriate level of unemployment necessary for the smooth functioning of the economy is a cruel myth.
Unemployment brings people shame, despair, ill-health, and addiction. Employment brings people dignity, identity, well-being, and motivation. For all the band-aids we try to put on poverty, guaranteeing employment would be the closest thing to a real cure.
In the 1960s and 70s, economist Hyman Minsky called for a stable, free-enterprise economy that puts an end to poverty for all who are willing and able to work. Minsky saw the government as the “employer of last resort” or ELR, by offering a job at a livable minimum wage to anyone who needs one. He argued that ELR-style anti-poverty programs are more likely to build public legitimacy and support than welfare programs because the job holders produce goods and services that will benefit the broader population. For example, the New Deal’s employment programs built thousands of schools, hospitals, parks, airfields, roads, sewers, trails, and other valuable infrastructure and helped to lay the groundwork for the post-war economic boom.
(Ending Poverty: Jobs Not Welfare is the title of a collection of Minsky’s writing.)
Economist Pavlina R. Tcherneva, in her new book, The Case for a Job Guarantee, suggests that instead of recreating the WPA or the CCC, the large government programs of the New Deal era, guaranteed jobs should be administered through the nonprofit and social entrepreneurial sectors. With about 1.4 million nonprofit organizations currently employing more than 12 million people nationwide, nonprofits could readily expand the number of jobs available to meet a wide range of human needs while simultaneously reducing the need for unemployment compensation, school lunch programs, food stamps, welfare payments, and job retraining programs. With guaranteed employment, relevant job training could be built right into the job.
Without waiting for economic decisions to be reached by partisan politicians, a nationwide job guarantee automatically puts a floor under unemployment, keeps spendable income flowing, limits human suffering, and finds useful nonprofit employment in the local region.
The job guarantee spends government money only in direct proportion to the size of the crisis. The guaranteed jobs would fade away as the need receded and private jobs are restored. And the government deficit that might be needed to pay for the additional nonprofit jobs will not create inflation in a shrinking job market.
While a job guarantee will soften the blow of mass unemployment in a community like Gillette, it also fosters mobility. People usually are reluctant to move from where they have lived for a long time to a new job market where their future is uncertain. However, many more would likely risk moving if they knew there would be guaranteed jobs when they arrived in a new locale.
Imagine how a job guarantee would have eased the suffering and provided meaningful work during the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic. Firstly, people wouldn’t have had to wait for our polarized political system to provide financial assistance, in ways that sometimes failed to benefit the people who most urgently needed help. Secondly, as people lost their jobs their labor could have been mobilized in a myriad of nonprofit tasks — delivering meals and groceries to homes, staffing an abundance of coronavirus testing sites, responding to the devastating floods and fires that have further disrupted our lives, assisting the post office in processing mail-in ballots for the 2020 presidential election and working at the polls to ensure a smooth 2020 election process.
Some will cry “socialism” in response to the idea that government serve as the Employer of Last Resort, but giving people jobs rather than welfare matches both conservative and liberal values. Furthermore, the jobs are in the private sector, not in government. And in a challenging time, a job guarantee may be the surest and quickest way to heal a divided America.