By BRIAN SCHRADER
Once the pandemic is under control, we can finally focus our attention on the crippling recession caused by our delayed and haphazard response. When that day finally comes, we should be ready with a plan to increase prosperity for all Americans. To right our wrongs, we need to be bold, we need to be swift, and we need to be ready to make history.
Assuming we actually did create a suitably large pandemic contact tracing workforce, once the pandemic is under control and the need for tracing declines, we should reject the predictable urge to wind down the program; instead, we should increase the program’s funding immensely. We should direct the program to hire even more unemployed workers, and encourage local and state governments to re-train them for other work in their communities. What our economy lacks right now is jobs. The service sector has collapsed and it will take time for the sector to recover. Rather than simply boosting unemployment insurance (which we should also continue to do while the recession lingers) the federal government should ensure that any American who wants a job can get one in their community. To do this, Congress need only make the funding available to states and local governments so that they can hire those seeking work.
Such a workforce could number in the millions, and by allowing state and local governments to direct their efforts, these workers would be directly benefiting their communities in a time of decreased local tax revenue and cuts to state services. There is no shortage of work to be done. Anyone who walks our streets, enjoys our parks, hikes our trails, or fishes in our lakes knows that there are plenty of trails that need restoring, waters that need cleaning, roads that need sweeping, trees that need trimming, and erosion damage that needs repairing. Such a workforce could repaint and repair public spaces, fix broken or falling signage, or simply pick up trash all around the country. Currently much of this work goes undone because cities, counties and even states lack the funds or political will to make it happen. If such institutions one day found that they had a well-paid and well-stocked workforce of people to do routine work, this work would actually be done. Since the federal government would sponsor the worker’s wages and benefits, the cost to cities, counties, and states is negligible and local agencies would need only to oversee the work and determine the priority of projects.
A federal jobs program would effectively eliminate unintended unemployment in the United States —as well as reduce underemployment, where a person works less than they’d prefer because they can’t find a job that fits their needs. This workforce should all be given benefits and be paid $15 per hour. People helping to restore their community would bring pride to cities and counties across the nation, build camaraderie between those who work a federally-backed job and those in the larger labor market, help stabilize the economy during future economic downturns, and raise working standards for all Americans. Unemployment and disability insurance can and should still be made available to those temporarily out of work but looking for other private-sector employment or those who simply cannot work, but anyone unable to find private-sector employment would have the option of a job helping their community thrive.
To those out there who see this as another unpaid-for social program, keep in mind that these workers would in fact pay state, local, and federal taxes (thereby boosting local and state tax revenues substantially). Additionally, studies by economists have demonstrated that such a program, even if implemented without increasing taxes to pay for it, would have a negligible effect on inflation in a 10-year window and would go a long way towards bringing the U.S. economy to full strength. This easily offsets the impact of such deficit spending.
A universal federal jobs guarantee might seem like a fantasy, but America has done similar things before. After the Great Depression, the federal government sponsored grand building projects, in addition to promoting and celebrating a generation of artists and musicians. While today’s iteration can and should be more universal and less federally directed, the foundation is already laid for us to build the future we want, one where everyone can have their share of the prosperity that is coming. We just need to give everyone a job.
— Brian Schrader is a local business owner, software developer, writer and San Diego resident living in Normal Heights.