About a year ago I read a series of books focused on homelessness and poverty in the Untied States. One take-away I had from the reading was that we need a federal guaranteed jobs program. A guaranteed jobs program would certainly be looked down upon, would not be well respected, would be criticized, but would make a huge difference in addressing deep poverty across the nation.
In their book $2.00 A Day, Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer explore the lives and realities of people living on an average of $2.00 a day in the United States. There are people in our country living a poverty so severe that many of us cannot imagine it exists within our country, yet the number $2.00 a day poor has increased recently and results from a complex set of factors that the authors explore.
One factor explored by the authors is a lack of quality and meaningful jobs for people at the lowest end of the socio-economic scale. Jobs for these individuals are often unreasonable in multiple ways. Schedules are often set at the last minute, with unpredictable and often unworkable hours. They are also often part-time, temporary, and likely to be cut at the slightest misstep. Better jobs may be available, but they may be further away than an individual living in poverty can reasonably and reliably commute to. Jobs, in other words, are not as easy to obtain and maintain as people higher up the socio-economic scale might imagine, and getting a foothold with a job to propel oneself is often next to impossible for individuals whose work future is hanging in the balance with every tiny misfortune.
Jobs provided by a government, jobs that are always available and make an effort to meet people where they are, simply do not exist. For the nation’s poorest, a job in government is almost impossible to find. The authors write, “a small group of low-skilled individuals find work at municipal buildings or in schools (perhaps as cafeteria workers or bus drivers), but prison inmates are sometimes used for maintenance and janitorial services in these places [specifically referring to the Mississippi Delta region].”
Our nation’s poorest compete for very few low wage public jobs. Part of their competition comes from prison labor, where inmates are paid less than minimum wage to work. I think these prison programs are a good thing, though I have never studied or considered them in depth. But it is notable that those in deep poverty have to compete against prisoners who make less than the minimum wage.
The only things stopping our country from developing a guaranteed jobs program is a lack of interest and stigma against the poorest of the poor. It is likely that we would not be able to find truly meaningful work for everyone who wanted and needed a job at all times, but we should make an effort to find something to do to employ the poorest among us in one way or another. There is no reason we cannot develop a program that would help meet people where they are and find something for them to do for which a wage can be provided. We have diminished the social safety net programs that help support the poorest among us, often with the argument that people should only receive such support if they are productive members of society, but we don’t make any efforts to help people become productive members of society. We don’t offer guaranteed jobs and we don’t do a lot to work with people who have not been employed for a long time to get them back into the swing of work. While some programs exist, generally we don’t find flexible ways to let people work and find pride in being part of society.
Instead, we marginalize people, criticize them for being failures, and push them to the side while blaming them for their failure. Companies and businesses are then unwilling to hire such people, reinforcing in their own minds that their failure is something inherent in who they are, driving a vicious cycle of failure, poverty, apathy, and despair. It is not a welfare program itself that drives this cycle, but the entire system and way in which we act toward such people. A guaranteed jobs program would not be perfect and would not solve every problem for every individual, but it would start to make a difference and offer some people a real way out of $2.00 a day poverty.