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Jobs: A Human Right | Commentary

There are several signs in the House of Representatives that indicate that members of Congress are taking seriously the call to create quality employment for Americans. This is a good thing and something of which we need to see more, especially with 50 million Americans still living in poverty and another 100 million living in low income. With record income inequality in this country, furthermore, we clearly have some work to do.

First, we recently witnessed the creation of a Full Employment Caucus, co-founded and co-chaired by U.S. Reps. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., and Frederica S. Wilson, D-Fla., to, in their words, discuss “proven job-creation proposals and implement strategies for their adoption.” The end result would “strengthen America’s economy and restore dignity for the tens of millions of Americans who have suffered the physical and emotional pain of joblessness.” Now that’s a patriotic play by our policymakers. Let’s hope it builds momentum quickly in the House.

Given that America has 30 million of its citizens unemployed or underemployed, this is a noble task and one that’s worth taking up. Conyers and Wilson believe that employment is a human right. I couldn’t agree more. It certainly is an essential component of improving one’s capacity to fulfill basic human needs, like providing shelter, food, autonomy and security for one’s family. These are the necessary ingredients and essential foundation for any American dream, however elusive it remains for millions of Americans.

Equally important, from an economist’s or policymaker’s perspective, are the benefits that come from a fully employed America. Higher numbers in the workforce mean higher wages and higher purchasing power — and ultimately higher economic productivity. Businesses understand this better than most, as do law enforcement officials across the country.

Americans who have quality employment, which includes a living wage, are able to spend in the economy above and beyond their basic needs. Beyond putting food on the table and paying rent, Americans who are making a sufficient salary can do more for their family than just the basic buys, a trend that U.S. manufacturers will certainly merit.

Beyond business, police also know well that individuals and communities that have higher standards of living are witnessing less violence. There is a strong correlation between poverty, inequality, poor education and economic opportunity, low social mobility and violence. No surprise. It doesn’t mean that poor people are inherently violent. Not in the slightest. But when you’ve got your basic needs taken care of, you’re much less likely to give all that up and risk arrest from petty crime or misdemeanor. When educational achievement and economic opportunity is readily available, the incentives for legitimate engagement in society are greater. And Conyers and Wilson get that.

Second, Rep Tony Cárdenas, D-Calif., is introducing the American Worker Mobility Act this month, to ensure that America’s unemployed workers have the support they need to find quality employment, which often requires relocation. According to Cárdenas, the relocation subsidy, to be distributed by the Department of Labor, will help Americans relocate within the U.S. “at least 60 miles from the individual’s current residence, for the purpose of attaining employment.” The assistance will be available to any American individual who “has obtained a bona fide offer of suitable employment affording a reasonable expectation of long-term duration in the area in which the individual wishes to relocate.” The legislation also applies to American workers who wish to relocate from an area of high unemployment to an area of low unemployment. This is exactly what unemployed workers need.

From the macro to the micro, Conyers, Wilson and Cárdenas are tackling the essential components required to get America back to work. We need both efforts. From thinking big about bringing America to full employment, with less than 4 percent unemployed, to caring for the day-to-day concerns of a worker who may have to move his/her entire family to another state to obtain a quality job, this is what foresighted members of Congress think about and, ultimately, legislate.

We’ve got plenty of work waiting for the unemployed and the underemployed in America; it’s merely a matter of prioritizing it. The $3.6 trillion needed, for example, to bring our roads, bridges and infrastructure up to safety standards, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers, after being neglected for more than 30 years, is a great place to start.

America has the money. Remember that we’re spending $4 trillion to 6 trillion on the Afghanistan and Iraq wars after we take care of all the returning soldiers. Thus, any member who says we don’t have the federal funds to create American jobs is being disingenuous and doing a disservice to our workers who want to return to the workforce.

The time for prioritizing just jobs in America is long past due. These members of Congress get that. And thank goodness. We can no longer keep American workers waiting.

Michael Shank, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the JustJobs Network and associate director for legislative affairs at the Friends Commission on National Legislation.

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