Bill Honer is the former host of the California Cable television program .Social Issues.
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A Blueprint for a Better America By Bill Honer
The Chicago Political Economy Group, Joe Persky et al, has proposed an $18-an-hour wage that would entail a permanent public-jobs program for three and one-half million Americans. The group asserts that the private sector in America has failed to provide sufficient jobs and a living wage for tens of millions of Americans. The program, with a price tag of over $800 billion annually, would involve a major redistribution of wealth towards lower-income Americans and would be paid for by significant tax increases on financial services and carbon-emission production, a reduction in military spending, and, if necessary, an increase in the money supply for public purposes. The failure of neo-liberal economic policies has been a disaster for the majority of the American people. It began in earnest with the policies of the Reagan administration; the disparity of wealth has grown with each succeeding president, Democrats included.
The jobs would be in the areas of public infrastructure, including such as transportation, educational, and healthcare facilities, and parks, social services, and green industries. This article cannot do justice to the scope of their plan; a visit to their web site is highly recommended. However, what I can do here is present evidence of my experience with the benefits of a public-jobs program.
I served as a government analyst for Sacramento County, California, during the 1970s, assisting in the implementation of a large-scale public-employment program for thousands of unemployed persons funded by the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA). The program was a success, with 63% entering unsubsidized employment within 30 days of program termination for 500 program participants surveyed.
The jobs in which they were placed were not, as conservatives like to say, "make-work" jobs. They worked as social service aides, entry-level clerks in school districts and government offices, government analysts, account clerks, health-education aides, teacher's aides, landscape and maintenance workers, and other useful jobs in agencies and departments that were under-funded and understaffed. The addition of public-service employees significantly enhanced services to the public. At the same time, work is not only an economic necessity. it is also a psychological one that provides meaning to life for many people. In effect, access to employment is a human right.
The public-employment program reached the hard-to-employ, including the long-term unemployed. How did the program work? Unemployed persons were registered by Sacramento County Personnel Department staff and a Special Employment Unit was established. Program participants were placed in county and state agencies, school and park districts, and nonprofit agencies that provided health, education, and social services to the community. Participating agencies were not permitted to reduce their current workforce and supplant them with program participants. This was enforced through a "maintenance of effort" provision in contracts signed by participating employers in government and the nonprofit sector.
As an incentive for participating agencies to transition participants from subsidized to unsubsidized employment, agencies with good records of hiring public participants were rewarded with additional program participants. Workers were paid an annual salary of $10,000 to $12,000. Thirty years ago, it was possible to live a middle-class lifestyle with that income; the amount paid is sadly close to the current minimum wage.
The program reached the hard to employ. On two Friday evenings each month, I traveled to San Quentin Prison and met with inmates due to be paroled to the Sacramento area. Of the 10 inmates who participated, only two returned to prison during the following two years. A review of 500 program participants found that 315, or 63%, were employed in unsubsidized positions within 30 days of termination from the program. On his first day in office, Reagan terminated the employment of 585,000 Americans under the program.
There were some remarkable success stories. Leonard K., a 45-year-old American Indian, entered the program in 1975 following his release from prison after serving a 16-year sentence for a double homicide. I talked with him recently; he is now 78 years old, and has never returned to prison. He credits the jobs program and my work with him as the major reason he did not return to crime.
Another success story was that of Albert H. a participant who, incredibly, went on to become director of Region IX of the United States Department of Labor, the very agency that provided oversight to the public-employment program in Sacramento! Work for most people is an economic and psychological necessity. Thousands found a sense of productivity and personal dignity through the program. The salaries they received generated money within the economy.
The program requires effective monitoring by federal and local governments, with emphasis on transitioning participants to unsubsidized employment where feasible. Sacramento County operated a professional and ethical program. Some officials in Philadelphia and Chicago were indicted for criminal violations and sent to prison for their administration of the public-jobs program.
President Obama has discussed the need for 21st-century solutions to current problems; if he has solutions, he is doing an excellent job of hiding them from public view. However, human needs have not changed from the prior century. People still need to feel a sense of self-worth and dignity that employment can bring to their lives. The infra-structure to operate a public-employment program is largely in place. City and county personnel departments, along with nonprofit agencies throughout the nation, are in a position to implement the program. They would greatly benefit from a five-percent administrative fee. All that remains is the political will to move our nation forward and put our people back to work with a decent quality of life.
Bill Honer is a former Sacramento County Senior Analyst and now serves as an international consultant to nonprofit organizations. He is co-author of "The California State Department of Education Five-year Plan for Adult Education" His writings have been published in the United States, Spain, and Costa Rica.