Op-EdOpinion

COATES: Demanding Jobs Over Jails

As the Biden administration and Congress debate the next round of spending to spur economic recovery, there is no doubt that the recent Job Guarantee Resolution by Rep. Ayanna Pressley is the best way to provide long-term economic stability for the American people.

A federal job guarantee provides a legal guarantee to a dignified job with benefits at a livable wage for every American who wants one. It eliminates involuntary unemployment in America by providing federal funding for state and local priorities related to infrastructure and transitioning to a green economy, creating tens of millions of jobs in the process.

Amidst a global health pandemic, a job guarantee helps to reduce societal tension due to perceived and real labor competition, strengthen our families and make our communities safer due to reduced crime. Another key benefit of a job guarantee is that the spending is automatic, freeing us from the political whims of Washington and its ability to act in an appropriate and timely manner in a crisis. Lastly, a job guarantee liberates us from the failed economic assumptions that link unemployment and inflation.

Having a full-employment economy should be a permanent feature of our economy rather than sacrificing the unemployed on the altar of outdated economic assumptions that claim the federal government cannot afford such a plan. Against such a claim, we affirm that available resources, not revenue, is the only constraint on federal government spending, and as long as there is no inflation problem, there is no revenue problem.

As faith leaders committed to social and economic justice, it is important to note that a job guarantee is the unfinished policy objective of the civil rights movement. It has antecedents in the 1940s with the work of Sadie Alexander, the nation’s first Black economist, continuing through the policy objectives of Dr. King’s “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” in 1963, and culminating in the advocacy of voices in the 1970’s such as the late Congressman Gus Hawkins, Vernon Jordan and Coretta Scott King. It is all too widely forgotten today that in the mid-1970s, Scott King carried on this advocacy after her husband’s assassination, mobilizing demonstrations in favor of a federal job guarantee. This effort culminated in the passage of the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act, a bill that initially included a job guarantee before it was watered down over concerns about inflation and affordability.

Yielding to these unfounded concerns has proven to be a tragic and brutal betrayal to the Black community, as the nation’s policymakers proceeded to choose to guarantee jails in the face of an intensified “War on Drugs” over guaranteeing jobs in the face of rising deindustrialization.

The consequences of choosing jails over jobs can hardly be overstated. Rather than extending full inclusion in our economy to the Black community, policymakers codified the tragically misguided notion that our central bank must actively raise interest rates, thereby enforcing a policy of mass unemployment in the name of fighting inflation. This may sound hyperbolic, but up until recently, the Federal Reserve’s formally stated policy has been to intentionally take steps to increase unemployment whenever it got “too low.”

Today, over 40 years later, though the economic rationale for the rejection of the job guarantee has been discredited, we still have yet to reverse this fateful decision. This policy systemically ensures that there could never be enough decent, good-paying jobs to go around, making our economy a lot like a game of musical chairs in which mostly Black and brown communities would be disproportionately left without “chairs” or a means of providing for their families. Unemployment leads to drug abuse, violence and other crimes that have fed mass incarceration.

According to a Brookings report, 97.2% of imprisoned people had less than $15k in reported income the year before they were locked up, and 84% had earnings under $500. As Los Angeles Police Deputy Chief Jesse Brewer said with laudable prescience in 1981, “We are right now creating criminals” by failing to provide employment opportunities for the unemployed.

If Black America is to have any hope that the country can move towards a more just future with economic opportunity and the end of mass incarceration, we must reverse course by choosing to prioritize jobs over jails. Today, the job guarantee presents a decisive solution to the economic injustices created in the past. While some may claim that we did not realize the stakes of our decision to shun the job guarantee in the late 1970’s, today we can claim no such alibi. In an economy that plays a game of musical chairs with our livelihoods, it is not the unemployed who refuse to contribute to society, but society that refuses the contributions of the unemployed.

Signatories

1. Rev. Jamal Bryant — New Birth Missionary Baptist Church (Atlanta)
2. Bishop Dwayne Debnam — Morning Star Baptist Church (Gwynn Oak, Md.)
3. Rev. Dr. John Faison — Watson Grove Baptist Church (Nashville, Tenn..)
4. Rev. Willie Francois — Mount Zion Baptist Church (Pleasantville, N.J.)
5. Rev. Dr. Cynthia Hale — Ray of Hope Christian Church (Decatur, Ga.)
6. Rev. Dr. Frederick Haynes — Friendship-West Baptist Church (Dallas)
7. Bishop Donté Hickman — Southern Baptist Church (Baltimore)
8. Rev. Dr. David Jefferson — Metropolitan Baptist Church (Newark, N.J.)
9. Rev. Courtney Clayton Jenkins — South Euclid United Church of Christ (Cleveland)
10. Rev. Dr. Kevin Johnson — Dare to Imagine Church (Philadelphia)
11. Rev. Shane Scott — Macedonia Baptist Church (Los Angeles)
12. Rev. Dr. Gina Stewart — Christ Missionary Baptist Church (Memphis, Tenn.)
13. Rev. Dr. Jacqueline Thompson — Allen Temple Baptist Church (Oakland, Calif.)
14. Rev. Dr. J. Lawrence Turner — Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church (Memphis, Tenn.)
15. Bishop Joseph Walker III — Mt. Zion Baptist Church (Nashville, Tenn.)
16. Rev. Dr. Lance Watson — Saint Paul’s Baptist Church (Richmond, Virginia)

Coates is senior pastor of Mt. Ennon Baptist Church in Clinton, Md., and founder of Our Money Campaign, an advocacy campaign aiming to reimagine how the federal government uses its public purse.

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