The Full Employment Act at 35: America's Unfinished Business
By John Conyers, Jr.
U.S. Representative John Conyers, Jr.
For the first time since the start of the Great Recession, the unemployment rate is below 6 percent. America has experienced 55 consecutive months of net job creation, resulting in the addition of 10.3 million new jobs.
Look beneath these surface-level statistics, however, and you'll still find massive unused human potential and unnecessary suffering. Nearly 19 million people across the nation are still searching for full-time work. The unemployment rates for African-Americans and young Americans remain in the double digits. The percentage of Americans in the workforce remains below pre-recession levels because millions of people who want jobs have become too discouraged to continue to seek employment. If these jobless Americans were counted in official statistics, the unemployment rate would be upwards of 9.6 percent.
The federal government has not only a moral obligation to address the ongoing jobs crisis -- it has a legal mandate. Today marks the 35th anniversary of the Humphrey Hawkins Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act, a law that requires federal policies to be directed toward the attainment of full employment. The law is in effect today, yet Congress continues to shirk its responsibilities to ensure that people are working.
The Humphrey-Hawkins Act, named after the law's authors, the late Senator Hubert Humphrey and the late Representative Augustus Hawkins, was a turning point in American public policy because it first established the principle that the federal government should serve as an "employer of last resort." The bill set specific targets for employment and authorized the use of a broad range of fiscal and monetary tools to achieve them.
While private sector hiring is the ideal, the Humphrey-Hawkins Act commits the government to step in when workers are idle and public needs -- like roads, schools, bridges, health centers, and scientific research -- go unmet. The cost of inaction is simply too great: unemployment means serious damage to Americans' health (by causing anxiety and lost insurance coverage), homes and neighborhoods (through foreclosures and increased crime), and lifelong career prospects (because of atrophied skills and discrimination against the long-term unemployed). When we create jobs -- whether through private investment or federal action--businesses have more customers able to buy more goods and services and the overall economy prospers. When there are more jobs available, lower-income and moderate-income workers can bargain for higher wages.
There are cost-effective policies Congress should pass right now to live up to the law it passed 35 years ago. Specifically, Congress should pass the new 21st-century Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment and Training Act (H.R. 1000) to create the means to hire people to make necessary upgrades to our infrastructure, healthcare, and education systems. Another excellent option is the updated and upgraded version of President Obama's American Jobs Act (H.R. 2821). Even if Republican leadership disagrees with these proposals to put Americans back to work, they should show respect for the suffering of unemployed Americans and their families by allowing them to receive a fair up-or-down vote.
If the Republican-controlled Congress continues to obstruct critical job creation initiatives, President Obama should build on his "year of action" to use the authority granted to him by the Humphrey-Hawkins Act to promote action for the unemployed wherever possible. I stand ready to assist President Obama in building Congressional support for an agenda that fulfills the promise of Humphrey-Hawkins.
Thirty-five years after the enactment of the Full Employment law, America remains far from the realizing the vision of a Full Employment society. We have both a moral obligation and a legal mandate to get to work.