In light of last week’s holiday, the College Democrats and the Jobs Now! Coalition, among others, sponsored an event called “Jobs Now! MLK’s Dream and FDR’s Vision.” Along with others, the event included a presentation from economics professor Mathew Forstater about MLK and his view on jobs and economics.
“There is not a great awareness that Dr. King wrote about jobs, the economy, etc.,” he said. “King’s argument is as relevant today as it was then.” With unemployment within the African-American community nearly double that of the Caucasian community, Forstater sees the problem as clearly important to address.“Perhaps no single policy could have as great a social and economic impact on the African-American community – and the entire country – as federally funded job assurance for every person ready and willing to work,” he said in a 2002 article in the Forum for Social Justice. “Public Service Employment was a concrete part of MLK’s ‘Dream’, but he did not view it as utopian or overly idealistic.” Forstater also pointed out that the unemployment rate does not officially include those in prison who are disproportionately black, or African-Americans who have completely dropped out of the labor force due to psychological disablement, so the number could be much higher in reality.
Programs that Forstater and the other professors who spoke at the event are referring to would mirror the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The WPA was a federally funded jobs program created in 1935 during the height of the Great Depression in an effort to put people back to work.
“The idea is to let the private sector hire as much as they want,” Forstater said. “Don’t force them, but make up the difference with government funded community service projects.” The “March on Washington” is rarely stated as its full title “The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” as Forstater pointed out.
“Many people associate Dr. King with civil rights,” he said. “To some extent, we have made progress in the area of civil rights. There is still work to be done, but Dr. King and others have spoken of the second stage of the Civil Rights Movement as moving from civil rights to economic rights.”
Dr. King also drew a definitive line between jobs programs and job training programs: “Training becomes a way of avoiding the issue of employment … the orientation … should be ‘jobs first, training later.’ Unfortunately, the jobs policy has been the reverse, with the result that people are being trained for nonexistent jobs.” King said.
In 1964, Dr. King wrote in regard to public job assurance, “I would challenge skeptics to give such a bold new approach a test for the next decade.” Forstater brought Dr. King’s challenge back to life. “We know that unfortunately we did not take up his challenge at that time, but it is not too late to take up that challenge now,” he said. “What a better way to celebrate the dream and vision of Dr. King.”