How Cities Can Do Better Than the Fight for $15

It’s time for cities to reverse a shrinking workforce and build resilience in the face of climate change.

As we head into election season for municipal offices, candidates running for local city councils and mayor’s offices need a bold offensive strategy in order to reverse a shrinking workforce, growing pools of contingent workers who are vulnerable to volatile and low wages and reduced work hours, and to curb persistent labor market discrimination.

This will require transformative state and local policies to counter the hostility of the Trump administration, which has issued threats to defund cities that do not cooperate with draconic executive orders, pursued increasingly invasive and insidious deportation tactics by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, developed budget plans that drastically cut or eliminate essential public services, promoted tax plans that would exacerbate our trajectory toward rising inequality, and paid subtle (and not-so subtle) homage to white supremacist ideology and other threats to economic, ethnic and sexual orientation inclusion.

The current anthem on the left in response to this simply has been to “resist.” Resistance is vital but not enough. The time is now for the creation of full-employment cities through municipal job guarantees (MJG).

The MJG could employ people across different public service sectors.

The implementation of the Fight for $15 minimum wage campaign is indicative of an offensive strategy, but it is not nearly bold enough. It still leaves many workers unemployed or out of the workforce altogether, particularly those stigmatized by race, disability, or former incarceration status. Nor does it address the volatility of work hours and employment duration associated with an increasingly precarious labor economy.

Also, it does not address our 21st-century physical and human capital infrastructure needs, which will require substantial public investment, especially in the context of the need for more sustainable, resilient cities as we suffer the adverse effects of global climate change. A local strategy that would address these needs is implementation of a municipal job guarantee.

To be clear, an MJG is more extensive than local government job training or search-assistance programs, which do not ensure employment, and temporary civic job corps, including those geared toward youth summer employment.

Our proposal is for a permanent “public option” employment program with public purpose that offers a living wage plus benefits to any worker who cannot find decent employment in the wider labor market.

The MJG could employ people across different public service sectors, especially in light of an ailing national infrastructure, under-resourced commons and growing elder care needs. Jobs can range from construction, education and health services, supportive housing, libraries, child and elder care, sanitation, parks and recreation to projects generally designed to transform cities toward green, emission-free, municipalities.

An MJG program also would include training programs and professional development, provide physical and mental health coverage, family leave options and a vested pension, and promotion opportunities via an internal job ladder. It would ensure a participant all the rights to collective bargaining, or to affiliate with a public sector-based union similar to other municipal workers.

As an example, given shrinking fiscal support for public education, the MJG could employ trained, qualified, living wage earning, full-time workers to serve as auxiliary support alongside veteran teachers, staff and administrators of under-resourced schools, or help build more public educational facilities altogether through a larger “green infrastructure” corps.

An MJG also could work with disability-centered advocacy groups to facilitate more long-term solutions toward dignified employment, livability and financial independence. The same aims could be incorporated into programs designed to employ the formerly incarcerated. Current programs targeting unemployed groups often focus on skill building and training, but leave intact numerous structural barriers to gainful employment, including direct discrimination.

An MJG could be fiscally implemented in many ways, with a genuine life-changing effect on the unemployed to those who currently are earning poverty wages ($24,600 per year for a family of four) or less. For example, a smaller southern city like Durham, North Carolina (with approximately 306,200 total population), currently has about a 4 percent unemployment rate (about 6,400 people), and about one-fifth of its population makes less than $25,000 per year.

If we were to focus on the jobless only, at an average expense of $55,000 per MJG employee (which would include an individual’s salary, benefits, materials, supplies, supervisory costs, and training costs), the program would cost about $352 million per fiscal year. This alone would represent a sizable portion of the city’s yearly $430 million budget.

Larger urban contexts have greater resource for full local funding of a job guarantee.

Thus to produce a full-employment city, a smaller municipality may have to be creative relative to needs, costs, and demographic trends, perhaps implementing the job guarantee first on a smaller scale by targeting the neighborhoods with the highest unemployment rates.

Such a phased version of the program could be combined with initial targeting of individuals earning poverty-level wages. Residency requirements would be necessary at the local level to determine who is eligible for the MJG; we recommend at least five years of consecutive established residency in the municipality. If a person were displaced (by eviction, for example) from an MJG-focused low-income neighborhood in the municipality, specifically one recently or undergoing rapid gentrification, the length of residency requirements could be waived.

Larger urban contexts have greater resource for full local funding of a job guarantee. For example, New York City’s latest unemployment rate in June was 4.4 percent, representing roughly 185,000 people. To enable all of those persons to work, the cost of the MJG would be around $10.1 billion annually, representing about one-eighth of the city’s $85.2 billion budget for 2017-2018. Not incorporated in the calculus are all the psychological and social benefits that come along with a job to recipients, their families and their communities.

Regardless of plan for budgetary expenditure, phasing in access to the program for all residents should be in place at the outset, providing space for the mobilization of future tax revenues to simultaneously focus on the unemployed to those working in dead-end, low-paying jobs without health benefits.

It is important to point out that in Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has announced a policy that high school degrees will be withheld unless young people have documented plans via college acceptance, military service, or a job offer. Similarly, in New York state, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has implemented the new Excelsior Scholarship, guaranteeing a tuition-free enrollment at the City University of New York if students meet a set of merit-based criteria. The policy requires a graduate to live in New York state for four years post-graduation or pay back their tuition.

Withholding degrees for the jobless or forcing residency requirements post-graduation is punitive and nonsensical without guaranteed employment. It is a public responsibility to provide free, quality education as it is to provide quality jobs through a permanent, livable-wage, municipal job guarantee.

At present, the Trump administration’s jobs and infrastructure plan cajoles the private sector into hiring more workers and rebuilding the nation’s crumbling infrastructure via deregulation and tax incentives. Such an approach leaves workers vulnerable to the whimsical nature of “trickle-down” employment and the instability of contingent work. It will transfer the value of our public infrastructure assets to corporate interests with no guarantee that the infrastructure will actually be built in the first place.

The other side of the federal government, the minority Democratic Party, has called for a plan for a “Better Deal…(to) creat(e) millions of good-paying, full-time jobs by directly investing in our crumbling infrastructure and prioritizing small business and entrepreneurs, instead of giving tax breaks to special interests.” Such ideals are consistent with a federal job guarantee, but the party has not yet gone so far as to make the official call for one. Regardless, an MJG has little chance of passage given the current Republican control of the House, Senate, and Oval Office.

But, in the interim, we can do more than wait and “resist.” At the local and state levels we can add precision and teeth to the mantra for a “better deal” with an MJG. America can and should have full-employment cities. They are the gateway to a full-employment nation.

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William A. Darity Jr.
Darrick Hamilton
Darrick Hamilton is the incoming Henry Cohen Professor of Economics and Urban Policy and University Professor at The New School.
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Alan A. Aja

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