Sunday, December 6, 2015

The recollections, and the wise & spirited words of Harry Hopkins - part 7: Employment Assurance

(WPA administrator Harry Hopkins, left, and PWA administrator Harold Ickes, 1935. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.)
Harry Hopkins understood something that many of his New Deal colleagues did not - and something that even many of today's liberals and progressives do not: The United States needs a policy of employment assurance (essentially, a permanent WPA-type program), so that when a person's unemployment benefits run out he or she is not thrown to the whims of the "job creators" or the vagaries of charity. As a member of the Council on Economic Security, Hopkins advocated for Social Security to include employment assurance. And, in 1936, in promotion of a permanent public jobs program, he wrote: 
"Until the time comes, if it ever does, when industry and business can absorb all able-bodied workers--and that time seems to grow more distant with improvements in management and technology--we shall have with us large numbers of unemployed...What is the outlook for these unemployed? First, workers must have unemployment insurance [not to be confused with "employment assurance"]. This is part of any social security program. An insurance benefit, however, will not tide a man through an indefinite period of unemployment. Nor will it take care of the annual net increase of over 400,000 workers who come of age each year, and the other young who have never had jobs" (Harry Hopkins, Spending to Save, New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1936, pp. 180-182, emphasis added). 
Employment assurance did not make it into the final Social Security Act, of course, leaving us to imagine how life would be different today if it had. Perhaps employment assurance would mean, to those of us not born into wealth, that we would be less likely to face bankruptcy, dropping credit scores, harassing telephone calls from abusive debt collectors, employment discrimination, hope-crushing poverty, and homelessness, when we lose our jobs during economic downturns - downturns which are frequently caused (or worsened) by corporate greed, corruption, and crime.
The employment assurance idea did not come to fruition, it seems, for a variety of reasons, including: Conservative opposition to the cost of such assurance; resistance from the business and banking community - as well as their marionettes, e.g., the Liberty League; President Roosevelt's refusal to persistently fight for it; and the persuasion by Daniel W. Bell, the executive branch's budget director, to exclude it. (For a fascinating discussion about the attempt to include employment assurance in the Social Security Act, see June Hopkins, Harry Hopkins: Sudden Hero, Brash Reformer, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1999, pp. 178-200.) 
Professor of Law Philip Harvey (Rutgers University) has suggested that a direct job-creation program (along the lines of a permanent WPA) is superior to Keynesian-style indirect job-creation strategies, e.g., President Obama's $787 billion stimulus package in 2009, because, among other reasons, it is faster and less expensive per job. But Harvey highlights an unfortunate reality:
"Sadly, the employment-assurance leg of the [Council on Economic Security's] overall strategy for securing everyone's right to an adequate income has languished, with progressives failing to even understand what their predecessors abandoned as a result of their pursuit of the seemingly easier path to full employment promised (but only rarely delivered) by the Keynesian strategy. The advantages of the direct job-creation strategy are so clear and so great that the attachment progressives continue to show to the latter seems almost perverse. It is long past time for progressives to shed their Keyensian bias and start learning from the New Deal" ("The New Deal's Direct Job-Creation Strategy: Providing Employment Assurance for American Workers," in Sheila D. Collins and Gertrude Schaffner Goldberg, eds., When Government Helped: Learning from the Successes and Failures of the New Deal, New York: Oxford University Press, 2014, p. 173). Note: Harvey points out that direct job-creation is a stimulus program in its own right, but different from the stimulus programs preferred today, i.e., Keynesian-style indirect job-creation).
What all of the above indicates to me, is that Harry Hopkins was light years ahead of his time. If you don't agree, consider this: Hopkins facilitated the employment of millions of jobless Americans through the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (1933-1935), the Civil Works Administration (1933-1934), and the Works Progress Administration (1935-1938). And, in doing so, he helped modernize American infrastructure on a scale not seen before or since. In light of these outcomes, he pushed for permanency. Now, compare that to today, where we have just gotten over a monstrous unemployment problem; long-term unemployment is still a problem; high unemployment rates plague African Americans, American Indians, and young Americans; the labor force participation rate is historically low; and our infrastructure is falling apart. Indeed, Hopkins was not only light years ahead of his time, he was light years ahead of our time as well.

In 1934, historian Charles Beard wrote of Hopkins and the Great Depression: "Hopkins has taken a realistic view of the appalling situation, has cast off all trivial cliches about the poor, and has acted with skill and promptness. With much justification, Mr. Hopkins may be called the most enlightened and realistic statesman in the whole administration at Washington, not excluding the President himself" (see June Hopkins reference above, p. 206). And when Hopkins died in 1946, Winston Churchill praised his passion for helping the downtrodden and wrote: "We shall not see his like again" (New York Times, January 30, 1946).

Judging by the anemic, neoliberal, and indifferent policies that occurred during the most recent recession, it seems Churchill's observation is, unfortunately, very true.

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