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Tuesday, 11 February 2014 00:00

US needs full-employment agenda

Written by Reps. John Conyers, Jr and Frederica Wilson

In the wake of an unprecedented period of high unemployment and amid turmoil overseas, a president stood before a joint session of Congress for his annual State of the Union address, offering a bold vision to expand economic opportunity, strengthen the middle class and reduce inequality. The year was 1944. The president was Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The “Second Bill of Rights,” unveiled during the State of the Union 70 years ago, was not a constitutional amendment but a statement of principles for America’s economic future. It was centered on a commitment to achieving a crucial national objective: full employment. 

With 50 million people, including 13 million children, now living below the poverty line and both parties seeking to address the national opportunity deficit in 2014, America’s political leaders should take a cue from FDR’s 1944 State of the Union. Congress should commit to do everything in its power to create the economic conditions for America to return to full employment. Getting every American working and contributing to the tax base will not only help eliminate poverty but also reduce the national debt and ultimately create the conditions for the free market to function well. 

 In the decades following FDR’s speech, Congress took serious action to realize the vision of a full-employment society. It passed the Employment Act in 1946, giving the federal government tools and a formal calling to “promote maximum employment, production, and purchasing power.” It passed a range of legislation to promote full employment through additional investments in transportation, health, education and research in the 1960s. Finally, in 1978, it passed the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act, calling on the president to work with the private sector to reduce unemployment to specific target levels. 

Contrast these efforts with the inaction in today’s Congress. With nearly 30 million American workers either unemployed or underemployed, each and every lawmaker should enshrine job creation as Priority No. 1. Yet Congress has actually made unemployment worse. The economic consulting firm Macroeconomic Advisers estimated that the fiscal showdowns and budget cuts that have consumed Congress over recent years have cost the country up to $700 billion in economic growth and more than 2 million jobs. 

As collapsed bridges, contaminated water and falling positions in global education rankings demonstrate, there are plenty of public projects our country needs to undertake. This is why we’ve been advocating for legislation — including the 21st Century Full Employment and Training Act and the American Jobs Act of 2013 — to create new opportunities to solve public problems while hiring educators, infrastructure-builders, first responders and medical researchers. There are good ideas in both parties for closing the skills gap, spurring infrastructure investment and reducing unemployment. But we need political will to pass a serious jobs bill. 

This week, we’re announcing the creation of the Full Employment Caucus in Congress. As co-founders, we will regularly host expert economists and policymakers to discuss proven job-creation proposals and implement strategies for their adoption. 

Achieving full employment isn’t only about helping jobless people. When we return to full employment, investors and businesspeople have more customers. When we return to full employment, workers have power to bargain for higher wages. Finally, when we return to full employment, crime declines as desperate people gain a paycheck and a purpose. 

We’re founding this caucus to strength America’s economy and restore dignity for the tens of millions of Americans who have suffered the physical and emotional pain of joblessness. 

Both President Obama’s State of the Union address and the Republican response echoed FDR’s emphasis 70 years ago on expanding economic opportunity, creating jobs and boosting wages. It’s time for Congress to pass a comprehensive jobs bill to realize that vision. 

Conyers has represented congressional districts in the Detroit area of Michigan since 1965. He sits on the House Judiciary Committee. Wilson has represented Florida’s 24th District since 2011. She sits on the Education and the Workforce, and the Science, Space and Technology committees.

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