In the Midst of the Unemployment Crisis, Why Not Guarantee Jobs?

Originally published in In These Times on June 10, 2020.
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Later this month, Pavlina Tcherneva, an economics professor at Bard College and a research scholar at the Levy Economics Institute, is publishing a book entitled The Case for a Job Guarantee. The book details a policy idea that she’s been thinking about and developing throughout her career. It’s gained momentum in recent years, with senators like Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) embracing it, and many activists have described it as an integral part of any Green New Deal. But what is a Job Guarantee, and how would it work? Contributing writer Rachel Cohen talked with Dr. Tcherneva about her forthcoming book, and how we should be thinking about a policy for guaranteed employment amid our current economic crisis. This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

Rachel Cohen: Reading your book, as I understand it, a job guarantee is a promise that a job, paying at least $15 an hour, will be given to anyone who wants one. If someone doesn’t want to be unemployed, they will be able to access a living-wage job through this program. Can you be fired from this job—for poor performance, co-worker complaints, or something else?

Pavlina Tcherneva: Yes, they can be firedIf someone is harassing people in the workplace, surely. A job guarantee is a promise that a job will be there, but it’s not a promise that belligerent workers will be tolerated. But the way we think about ‘belligerent’ just changes completely when you start thinking with a real person in mind.

So I sometimes equate a job guarantee to public libraries. You can assume that you can walk into a public library and get a book, and our libraries have services beyond books that librarians help you with. People may have all sorts of challenges and difficulties that prevent them from holding onto whatever private-sector job they have, but with a job guarantee, we would help those individuals with wraparound services, and our aim and interest is to help people be successful—like in a public library.

And just like with libraries—maybe you are escorted out at some point for bad behavior, but you’re not denied access if you return.

Rachel: You trace the Job Guarantee’s historical roots. It was affirmed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and it was in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s proposed Economic Bill of Rights. It was a signature issue for civil rights activists in the ’60s and it’s been etched into many nations’ constitutions. Has it ever existed anywhere in practice?

Pavlina: We have never had a law anywhere that guarantees everyone the legally-enforceable right to employment permanently. We’ve had one that comes close, in India, but it’s only for rural employment and just for up to 100 days per year. We’ve had situations where countries have achieved very low unemployment rates—in Japan, for example, their industrial labor and market policies produced unemployment at 1% to 2% for much of the post-war era. But I’m not talking about whether we can have policies that produce low unemployment. I’m talking about a codified right to employment to provide not just the legal, but also the institutional support for guaranteeing that right over the long-term. Because even in those countries that have been successful at getting us to 1 to 2% unemployment, they are not able to sustain it. So the Job Guarantee idea is to create a new legally-assured safety net.

Rachel: Your book went to print in December 2019, when U.S unemployment was at 3.5%, but it talks a lot about how unemployment can spread like a virus. It felt really poignant reading your book as unemployment is now 16.3%, and a real infectious virus is spreading. If 10 years ago we had passed a Job Guarantee program, what role do you think it could play to buffer the kind of mass unemployment we’re seeing today with coronavirus?

Pavlina: Had we put a Job Guarantee in place 10 years ago we would have had institutional infrastructure that would be ready to employ folks now. However, if you were working at a Job Guarantee job, just like if you were working any other job, you might need to stay home and you might need to be paid to socially distance. But because the Job Guarantee I’m envisioning would be aimed at filling certain public service gaps, it would also be able to, for example, mobilize people to check in on the elderly, to deliver meals, to provide teacher assistance.

Now I’d prefer that we respond to Covid-19 like they did in Denmark, where the government protects the private-sector jobs by paying the payrolls of the workers. That way you wouldn’t have this flood of unemployed people. But surely a Job Guarantee could help. I’m not an idealist, and I know this wouldn’t function totally smoothly. But just like any other institution that we consider important, we would make it work.

Rachel: Can you talk about what you’ve learned with respect to the unique harms of unemployment?

Pavlina: Economists will talk about the ‘scarring effects’ of unemployment, but that’s normally limited to what are the wages you lost, and you didn’t replace. But there are many other costs economists tend to ignore. An unemployed person experiences higher physical and mental health costs, they are sicker and weaker. Unemployment also negatively impacts a person’s net-worth, their connections, social capital. Unemployment creates so many conditions that make it harder to be re-employed later. And this then impacts families and children. If we were to add all those costs, we would not tolerate unemployment even when it’s very low. And I reject the idea that there is a “natural” rate of unemployment, just like we don’t accept a natural rate of homelessness.

Rachel: What kinds of lessons about unemployment did we learn from the Great Recession?

Pavlina: One irony of our economic system is that we have normalized the idea of ‘jobless recoveries.’ What we’ve learned from the Great Recession is that firms do not want to hire the unemployed. That’s the problem we have to solve. The folks who earn low wages are the first to be fired during economic downturns—we see this very clearly. And this has a racial dimension; unemployment always shoots up for African Americans more, it’s always higher for them and they recover more slowly. People with disabilities also saw their unemployment rate recover last after the recession. What we learn is that the official numbers do not tell the full story.

Rachel: In your book you talk a lot about green jobs. How do see the Job Guarantee as connected to the Green New Deal?

Pavlina: That is the promise, that for the person who loses their fossil fuel job, that they will find a job through the Green New Deal. This has been a challenge for the environmental movement—we have not been able to articulate clearly how will we protect people if they lose their jobs from oil rigs and mines or all of that. It’s the missing piece of the puzzle and it ensures a just transition, that the most vulnerable folks will have access to a living wage.

Rachel: Will it be just though if those workers are used to making $40 an hour and now can only get a $15-an-hour job?

Pavlina: Well other people have structured their Job Guarantee proposals with tiered wages. In my vision, the primary, overriding objective is to secure a firm, living-wage floor. And folks who are more highly-skilled typically don’t have the absolutely most horrific unemployment conditions. Maybe the floor has to be $17 an hour, or $20, but the point is we want to shore up that floor. In my ideal world, a Job Guarantee would be as small as possible. I’d much prefer to see permanent public services provided that are well-paid for, but there will always people who fall through the cracks and they deserve a living wage with guaranteed benefits, too.

The way I think about it is we literally are constrained with two choices. We either continue to accept unemployment as normal, or we have a Job Guarantee. The world with unemployment is simply worse than the one where we guarantee employment.

Rachel: What kinds of green jobs are you envisioning?

Pavlina: When I talk about green jobs, I’m not just talking about traditionally environmental jobs. To me ‘green’ is conservation of community and conservation of people, so it also includes care work. To me there’s no limit to the kinds of creative projects we could imagine. I think in addition to caring for people, we also could have jobs that involve caring for the environment like cleaning up parks, urban farming, planting trees, and doing preventative work for natural disasters.

Rachel: My last question: Are there any policy downsides you see to the Job Guarantee?

Pavlina: While I don’t see this as a downside to my proposal, traditionally many job programs have been done in punitive terms, like work-fare in the post-Reagan era. And with the rise of authoritarian governments, there’s always the risk of them awakening to the idea of providing employment and doing so in a punitive way. There’s always a risk of a policy being bastardized, but that just means we have to say vigilant.

 

Washington Governor Vetoes Bill That Would Have Automatically Cleared Criminal Records

Originally published in The Appeal on May 19, 2020.
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When the Great Recession hit in 2008, the unemployment rate among the general public stood at 6 percent. But it stood at a staggering 27 percent among the formerly incarcerated, according to a study by the Prison Policy Initiative —“higher than the overall U.S. unemployment rate during any historical period, including the Great Depression.” As the nation now grapples with the novel coronavirus and tens of millions of newly unemployed workers, individuals with criminal records—upward of 70 to 100 million Americans—are bracing for an even more severe crisis, with heightened difficulties obtaining jobs, loans, and housing.

In that context, criminal justice reform advocates in Washington State were all the more disappointed in April when Democratic Governor Jay Inslee vetoed House Bill 2793. It would have initiated the process of automatically expunging criminal records in nearly 2 million eligible cases.

Advocates have pushed for this type of reform, dubbed “Clean Slate,” around the country. Although expunged records yield major benefits, the vast majority of people who are eligible to get an expungement—over 90 percent of them, according to a University of Michigan study published in 2019—don’t even apply, for a host of reasons ranging from cost and time to legal complexity and a lack of information. Clean Slate bills propose to remedy these obstacles by requiring states to automatically expunge people’s records for eligible offenses. Though specifications vary, these bills typically involve clearing cases promptly if they did not result in a conviction, and clearing convictions after some waiting period.

The economic downturn has amplified the issue’s importance. Applicants with criminal records can be half as likely to get a callback or job offer, research has shown, and nearly nine in 10 employers use criminal background checks when hiring. Even among those who do find jobs, employees with records generally face significant earning penalties, while those with expunged records typically see their wages spike.

Still, in his formal veto letter, Inslee cited COVID-19 to explain his decision to block HB 2793. He argued that given the health and economic crisis wrought by coronavirus, Washington could not afford to move forward with the bill. Despite the research showing automatic record-clearing boosts economic opportunity for vulnerable people and ultimately saves states money, he insisted, “we must prepare for the effects of the lost revenue that will result from this pandemic.”

“To have Inslee veto our Clean Slate bill was really devastating for all of us who worked so hard and continue to make progress toward the relief that so many individuals need help with,” said Tarra Simmons, director of the Washington-based Civil Survival Project, a criminal justice organization led by formerly incarcerated individuals, and the co-chair of Washington’s Statewide Reentry Council. “Austerity is not going to help us in the economic recession.”

Simmons herself was sentenced to 30 months in prison for theft and drug crimes back in 2011. Six years later, when she graduated from Seattle University Law School, the Washington State Bar Association denied her entry into the bar exam, citing her felony record, but Simmons got the state Supreme Court to affirm her right to take the test. Simmons is now a licensed attorney and is also running for the state House.

The final version of HB 2793 was watered down from what advocates had originally proposed. It would have authorized a pilot program of automatic record-clearing in just one county, as well as a study due in December assessing how to implement the policy statewide, given Washington’s decentralized court system. The total price tag, according to the fiscal note, was $1.2 million over two years.

When the coronavirus hit, advocates pressed Inslee to sign the bill even if he couldn’t authorize the funding. Though it was limited, supporters still saw the legislation as essential to get the ball rolling in the state. Major philanthropic organizations like the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Arnold Ventures, and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative have supported automatic expungement efforts, and Simmons said they were confident they’d be able to secure private resources for the study if needed.

“He could have passed the policy without the funding piece, and it would have at least compelled state agencies to come to the table and collaborate with us,” Simmons told the Appeal: Political Report. “We said we can still do the report and we’ll figure it out, the cost, as a coalition.”

Nevertheless, Inslee nixed the legislation in full.

Mike Faulk, the press secretary for Inslee’s office, told the Political Report that the governor believes record-clearing is “an important issue” and “would like to see work done to move this forward when there are resources to allow for the work.” Faulk noted that Inslee vetoed many bills that he endorsed to control the budget and emphasized that the governor supports Clean Slate, “regardless of whether it got his signature this time around.”

Washington’s setback stands in stark contrast to the wave of momentum reformers have seen over the past few years when it comes to automatic record-clearing.

Pennsylvania was the first state to pass a Clean Slate bill in 2018, with polling showing over 80 percent of Pennsylvanians backed the idea. The law has had a tremendous impact in a short amount of time: Since it went into effect in June 2019, more than 34 million cases have already been sealed, including more than 80,000 misdemeanor convictions.

Unlike in Washington State, Pennsylvania has a unified court system—meaning that the data was already consolidated from all 67 counties. This aided Pennsylvania’s swift passage of its bill. “It mostly required some programming to make the concept run, and I think the fact that it wasn’t going to cost much of anything was really key,” explained Sharon Dietrich, the litigation director of the Philadelphia-based Community Legal Services.

Then, in 2019, Utah became the second state to pass a Clean Slate bill. California followed suit in October, though unlike in the prior two states, its reform does not apply retroactively. Only eligible offenses that occur after 2021 will be automatically cleared.

California went further than Pennsylvania and Utah in another way, though. Its law will apply not just to misdemeanors, as in these other states, but to some felony offenses as well.

Michigan is also advancing a Clean Slate bill, which passed the state’s House in November; the Senate may still take it up this year. If that bill passes, Michigan would have the first Clean Slate law to clear prior felony offenses. Lawmakers have also introduced bills this year in California, which may expand on its 2019 reform, and in Connecticut.

Advocates are pressing states to speed up consideration of these measures, rather than use the pandemic as a reason to slow it down. Workers with criminal records tend to be among those first fired from jobs and last hired during economic crises, they stress.

“This kind of policymaking is going to be more important—it’s not something that should be left as a COVID-19 afterthought,” said Rebecca Vallas, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, where she works on automatic expungement. “It needs to be part and parcel of our economic recovery or else we’ll just further compound the inequities we already have.”

Simmons agrees that discriminating against those with criminal records amid the pandemic puts Americans more at risk. “As the illness continues to spread, we need to beef up our essential workforce,” she said. “Folks with criminal records would be well equipped to step into these delivery and grocery roles.”

The federal government may be paying some attention. In 2019, Representatives Lisa Blunt Rochester, a Delaware Democrat, and Guy Reschenthaler, a Pennsylvania Republican, introduced legislation to automatically seal some people’s criminal records. Vallas says she has also heard of bipartisan interest in offering federal support to states that face greater financial and technological barriers to implementing automatic record-clearing than Pennsylvania did.

Reschenthaler told the Political Report in an email that Clean Slate-like legislation is important to battling “the revolving door to prison.” He added, “As we recover from the COVID-19 outbreak, eliminating barriers to employment will ensure formerly incarcerated individuals can fully participate and contribute to their communities to help us reopen America and reignite our economy.”

So far, the federal government has only made it more difficult for people with records to benefit from its economic stimulus package, though, by restricting access to forgivable business loans.