After the war Congress, worried that unemployment resulting from the shift back to a peacetime economy would send our economy back into a depression, passed the Employment Act of 1946 (typically referred to as “The Full Employment Act”) which stated that “it is the continuing policy and responsibility of the Federal government to use all practicable means . . . to foster and promote . . . useful employment opportunities, including self-employment, for those able, willing, and seeking to work.” Right there, in a bill passed by the seventy-ninth Congress and signed into law by President Truman over sixty years ago, is the key to an effective and equitable solution to our current economic crisis.
The “Full Employment Act” stopped short of guaranteeing everyone a job. That would require making the government the employer of last resort. It’s time to take that step. To paraphrase the welfare reform of the 1990s, we need to end unemployment as we know it. Paying able-bodied workers to sit home and do nothing when there is work to be done is inexcusable. It robs the workers of their dignity and shortchanges taxpayers in the bargain.
According to the latest report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 9.5 million people were unemployed nation-wide in September of 2008. For less than half the amount authorized to bail out Wall Street and financial institutions we could put every one of those unemployed people to work for a year at wages or salaries averaging $35,000.
A few members of Congress, including Senator Obama, have mentioned putting people to work on infrastructure and energy-related projects. There is a clear need for some public works projects to be undertaken at the present time. Our nation has a crumbling, outdated infrastructure and a dire need to implement an energy policy that includes speeding the development of new sources of energy.
Our government can reduce unemployment significantly by simply putting people to work on these projects that desperately need to be done, but we need to move beyond these obvious examples and develop a much broader range of opportunities to provide meaningful employment for those unable to find jobs on their own. Even the standard example, often given as a criticism of “make work” projects - digging holes in the morning and filling them up in the afternoon - could be made meaningful today if we combat global warming by having the workers involved plant a tree in between the digging and the filling in of the hole.
Putting people to work will increase our GDP and give taxpayers some benefit in return for their money. Achieving, or even approaching, full employment will pay for itself, at least in part, by leading directly to reduced pay-outs for unemployment benefits and other forms of welfare. There is plenty of work to be done. It’s time to limit the size of the cast of “American Idle” to those who are truly unable to work.