On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. While the speech is widely quoted for its hopeful message, we too often ignore the purpose of the speech and the specific demands of the march organizers – to advance the civil and economic rights of African Americans, and create good jobs with family-supporting wages for all.
During the final years of King’s life, this fight for economic justice became the cornerstone of his work. In a 1967 speech, King explained, “We must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America?’…When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy.” And yet, more than 50 years later, 100 million people – or one in three of us – are economically insecure and not enough people are asking why. To truly honor King’s visionary leadership, it is not enough to quote his speeches—we must keep asking his questions. And we must understand and implement the solutions he championed.
One such policy, which has gained traction once again, is for the United States government to guarantee a quality job to all. In an essay published shortly after his assassination, King explained, “We need an economic bill of rights. This would guarantee a job to all people who want to work and are able to work. It would also guarantee an income for all who are not able to work.” A job guarantee is a public option for a job that pays a living wage, offers full benefits, and focuses on projects that address expressed community needs. Employment under the program would be coordinated across all levels of government, creating jobs on projects from environmental restoration to rebuilding our crumbling roads and bridges to providing child and eldercare.
Today, despite record low unemployment, our economy simply does not provide enough full-time jobs for everyone who wants one, leaving millions of people in search of work. And while there has been steady job growth over the last several years, growth has been concentrated in industries with low wages, leaving millions of people economically insecure. A federal job guarantee would not only create quality jobs, but it would also force private employers to increase wages, benefits, and work conditions once they have to compete for workers. This is particularly significant for Black workers who face barriers to employment and routinely have an unemployment rate nearly twice that of white workers.
As history shows, such ambitious jobs programs are possible. Under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, the Works Progress Administration was a direct-hiring program that employed more than 8.5 million workers during the Great Depression. As a result of these jobs, there were 650,000 miles of new or improved roads; 39,000 schools built, improved, or repaired; 8,000 new or improved parks; 16,000 miles of water lines installed; 1,500 nursery schools operated; and even 2,300 personal accounts of slavery were collected as part of this effort. A modern-day jobs guarantee program has the potential to create millions of quality jobs for people while ushering in a new generation of transformative projects to address climate change and improve communities across the country.
This is why hundreds of leaders have signed the Jobs For All manifesto calling on policymakers to enact a job guarantee. Current signatories include Mayor Lovely Warren of Rochester, NY, former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, and even Franklin Delano Roosevelt II. The campaign is designed to build on the growing momentum for establishing a federal job guarantee.
Just this fall, Senator Cory Booker and Representatives Bonnie Watson Coleman and Ilhan Omar introduced legislation to pilot a job guarantee program in 15 communities across the country. A job guarantee is also a key feature of the Green New Deal Resolution introduced by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez with 98 cosponsors. And Senator Bernie Sanders has made a job guarantee a part of his campaign platform for the presidency.
While a job guarantee would require significant funding, it should be viewed as a multifaceted investment in people, communities, and the environment that will have cascading benefits for generations. Further, multiple polls show that a majority of voters—including nearly half of Republicans —support guaranteed jobs, making it one of the most popular economic proposals.
In the final weeks of his life, King worked to organize the Poor People’s Campaign, which demanded jobs for all, a universal basic income, and affordable housing. While he did not live to see his campaign, the work continued through other leaders, particularly his wife Coretta Scott King. Standing on the very hotel balcony where her husband was assassinated, she rallied supporters heading to Washington, DC, where she would lead a two-week protest to complete King’s final campaign.
When honoring King’s vision, people often invoke the “I Have A Dream” speech to endorse a colorblind society, bypassing the goals of the March on Washington and the racial injustices King called out in the speech, including police brutality, voter suppression, concentrated poverty, and economic injustice. It is not enough to simply praise King’s dream of a great nation while ignoring the policies he fought for to make that dream a reality. Tackling skyrocketing inequality and persistent racial inequity must be the fight of this decade.
To truly honor Martin Luther King, Jr., we should demand our policymakers adopt bold policies that move us toward an inclusive economy. It is time for a federal jobs guarantee.
Tracey Ross is a writer and advocate who leads federal policy and narrative change efforts for PolicyLink, a national research and action institute advancing racial and economic equity.