Few issues cause as much distress for Latinx communities as “jobs.” Some of us endure disproportionate levels of unemployment, as well as exploitation, discrimination, and harassment in the workplace. At the same time, some of us —especially the immigrants among us— are blamed for the joblessness of others. Along with our Black (non-Latinx) neighbors and intersecting communities of color, we are simultaneously considered too lazy and too hard-working to be dignified.
For the first time in over four decades, a policy that strikes at the heart of this problem —and the problems of unemployment and underemployment more generally— is viable. Two weeks ago, following decades of grassroots advocacy and dedicated research, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) unveiled legislation for a federal “Job Guarantee”, committing the U.S. government to provide employment to anyone who wants to work, as a matter of right. Just three days before, Senator Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) independently introduced a pilot Job Guarantee bill, which would provide 15 areas in the country with federal funding to guarantee jobs to all their residents.
Over the past two weeks, Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York), Kamala Harris (D-California), Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon), and Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) have all voiced support for the pilot bill. Under both proposals, participants would earn $15 an hour, full-time with full benefits, including healthcare. Under both proposals, employees could help build public infrastructure, or otherwise care for people, communities, and the planet.
Not a New Idea
The idea isn’t new. With roots as far back as the New Deal coalition and beyond, the Job Guarantee last surged to the cultural forefront during the Civil Rights Movement, embraced by groups with diverse politics. During the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, activists claimed there could be no fair employment without full employment. None other than the renowned Mexican-American labor leader, César Chávez, wrote the preface to a Spanish-language pamphlet explaining the Freedom Budget, a policy plan featuring a Job Guarantee at its center. Latinx groups actively participated in the first Poor People’s Campaign, which fought to “guarantee a job to all people who want to work and are able to work” and “an income for all who are not able to work.” In their 10-point program, the Black Panther Party explicitly claimed the state had an obligation to ensure full employment. Inspired by the Panthers, the Young Lords also argued for “employment for all” in their 13-point program. And most saliently, throughout the 1970s, Coretta Scott King led a movement to achieve a real, enforceable right to a good job at a good wage, arguably creating one of the country’s first and strongest Black/Latinx legislative alliances in the process.
Throughout the mid-1970s, Scott King’s broad coalition of civil rights groups, labor unions, and clergy pressured Congress to pass a bill mandating true full employment—a job for anyone who wanted to work. The initial version of the bill explicitly established the right of members of the public to sue the U.S. government should it fail to provide those jobs. Although opponents watered down the legislation to merely require the federal government to “promote full employment” in the context of other economic goals, the founding members of the newly formed Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) still voted alongside the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) to pass the Humphrey-Hawkins Act of 1978, the strongest jobs legislation in modern times.
To date, amid another crucial political opportunity to move us toward true full employment, no members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus have expressed public support for either the Sanders full-scale bill or the Booker pilot bill. Luckily, congressional candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (New York) have supported the Job Guarantee for months. And last week, Antoinette Sedillo Lopez (New Mexico) expressed her own support. These two progressives stand alongside non-Latinx candidates like Richard Dien Winfield (Georgia), who is running on a Job Guarantee in the South, where the Latinx community has grown exponentially in the last two decades. Other elected officials and candidates should follow their lead—and they can do so expecting strong community support.
According to Data for Progress and Civis Analytics, the Job Guarantee polls strongly across all racial groups, but garners net support of 62% among Black voters and 55% among Latino voters (even when the questions are framed unfavorably, mentioning support by Democrats, as well as unnecessary tax increases). When we asked Data for Progress about answers to another poll, not mentioning Democrats or tax increases, the numbers were even more telling. When Data for Progress analyzed support by age and racial/ethnic group, they found that 76% of Black voters, ages 18-29, and 76% of “Hispanic” voters, ages 18-29, agree that the government should guarantee a job for anyone who is unemployed or underemployed, at a decent wage “doing work that local communities need, such as rebuilding roads, bridges, and schools or working as teachers, home health-care aides, or child-care providers.”
This should surprise no one. The disproportionate Black and Latinx support, especially among young people, exists for good reason. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Current Population Survey, “Hispanic or Latino” unemployment rose significantly following the recession of 2008. Both the “Hispanic or Latino” and “Black or African-American” annual unemployment rates peaked in 2010 at 12.5% and 16%, respectively. By 2017, the “Hispanic or Latino” annual unemployment rate fell to 5.1%, compared to a 7.5% “Black or African-American” rate and a 3.8% “White” rate. Although the overall decline is notable, these measures exclude groups like people who have stopped looking for work altogether, people who perform care work without compensation, and the (disproportionately African American/Black and Latinx) incarcerated community. As stated by our colleague Darrick Hamilton, if the current, nominal white unemployment rate were equal to the current, nominal Black unemployment rate the whole country would “consider this catastrophic and be very alarmed.” This would also hold true if the white rate were equal to the inconsistent, often-fluctuating Latinx rate. Black, Latinx, and intersecting communities of color are struggling through a perpetual Depression.
Simply put, we need this. As underscored in a recent report on inter-group wealth disparities, the Latinx public is not a monolith, but a Job Guarantee would truly help all of us. In fact, a Job Guarantee would decrease the inequality experienced by certain subgroups within the Latinx community, such as Mexicans, Dominicans, and Puerto Ricans, who often experience higher unemployment rates than their Cuban and Colombian counterparts. Furthermore, the policy would especially help Afro-Latinx communities who struggle with unemployment and low incomes at rates comparable to those of Black (non-Latinx) Americans, despite findings they may possess (slightly) higher education rates than white/white-passing Latinxs. This latter observation reinforces observations advanced by Hamilton and his colleague, William “Sandy” Darity, Jr.: Blacks, Latinxs and other subaltern groups suffer from disproportionately high unemployment rates due to racial and structural barriers in the labor system, not because of a lack of education.
Failing Labor System
Even among the gainfully employed, the labor system is failing us. Latinx communities experience issues with job quality, as well as job quantity. Like Black (non-Latinx) workers, many Latinx workers are continually “crowded in” to low-wage sectors highly dependent upon private investment and consumer demand, such as construction, manufacturing and restaurants and food services. Within these sectors, scheduling can be sporadic, racial and sexual harassment is prevalent, and unionization and other benefits are typically absent. On top of all this, a recent report commissioned by Policylink, a national research institute, highlights an increase in Latinx employees working longer hours, for worse pay.
As economist Pavlina Tcherneva and others have argued, a Job Guarantee would establish a standard for job quality in our increasingly precarious economy. By providing a public option for employment, a Job Guarantee would help Latinx and Black workers break away from low-paying, volatile jobs and into jobs with better wages, improved conditions, and new legal safeguards. It would set an effective minimum wage of $15 per hour, as every private employer would have to compete with the Job Guarantee wage. In this sense, the Fight for $15 is baked into the struggle. Whether people ultimately choose to stay in Job Guarantee jobs or not, the policy offers millions of workers a pathway into sectors where Black and Latinx workers have been historically underrepresented.
Although the low quantity and poor quality of jobs are sufficient reasons to support a Job Guarantee, Latinx localities are also desperately in need of infrastructural development. The American Society of Civil Engineers has given infrastructure overall grades of “C” or lower in every state with a substantial Latinx presence (for example: Texas, Florida, California, Illinois, New Jersey, and New York). These dismal grades address not only crumbling roads and bridges, but public transportation systems, school buildings, drinking water, sanitation systems, and other public goods. At present, Trump’s so-called infrastructure plan seeks to dole out contracts to the private sector, but offers no viable solution to materially meet our needs. Conversely, a Job Guarantee could help up us directly upgrade our infrastructure, move away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energies, and employ people from the community to build and staff libraries, senior centers, day care centers, community centers, theaters and schools. This would be especially helpful for our island-based Puerto Rican hermanxs. As Wall Street and the Financial Oversight and Management Board engage in an irresponsible, immoral move to further divest from public institutions through employee layoffs, closings, privatization, and even the embezzlement of hurricane relief funds, a Job Guarantee —combined with a fiscal plan that cancels the unpayable “debt overhang”— can serve as a stop-gap against austerity and redirect financial flows toward the Puerto Rican people.
Reducing Racism and Xenophobia
Finally, a Job Guarantee is likely to reduce economic insecurity, and thus racism, xenophobia, and other accompanying prejudices that operate in labor markets. The right answer to “They took our jobs!” isn’t building border walls or deporting members of our families and communities. It’s guaranteeing everyone a job—it’s building sea walls and nurturing our families and communities. By fighting for a Job Guarantee, we can reorient the conversation away from a cut-throat sense of scarcity. Once we recognize that there can be enough jobs for everyone, we can discuss a common sense observation: the United States needs more, not fewer workers, especially if we’re to seriously confront global challenges like climate change.
We strongly agree with other Job Guarantee advocates that we need complementary policies to realize the “full promise” of a Job Guarantee: these include universal healthcare, family care for all, and notably, immigration reform. Need-sensitive inclusion, participation, and protection within the Job Guarantee is a goal worth fighting for. The movement for a Job Guarantee should be attuned to movements for rights for immigrants, tribes, disabled folks, the elderly, the formerly incarcerated, those performing work in the informal sectors, and other groups deserving of equity and restorative justice. In any case, if enacted, a Job Guarantee will become a space of political contest, and we can aspire to include new workers and new forms of work, cultivating the vitality and creativity of our communities.
We believe a right to a job is a human right, and alongside our compañerx within the United States and around the world, we strive toward a future where everyone can find good, meaningful work for good, meaningful pay. Although some will scowl at administrative difficulties and the cost to the federal government, we know the people have the capacity and the government has the money. We truly cannot manage nor afford the chaos of the status quo. People who want dignified work to support themselves and their families should always be able to obtain it. People who are unable to work should be supported by the rest of the community. This is no mere matter of policy: it is a foundation for a just and peaceful society. We humbly ask our communities to join us in creating that foundation.
Rita Sandoval is PhD Candidate in Public and Urban Policy at the New School and Adjunct Lecturer in the Department of Puerto Rican & Latino Studies at Brooklyn College.