Not many folks remember that the 1963 "March on Washington" was officially named "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom." This fact often gets lost amid the important celebration of the general achievement and highlights such as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s "I Have a Dream" oration. Indeed, the theme of job creation runs though Dr. King’s writings. 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. This is a policy approach that was explicitly supported by Dr. King, and that is currently receiving attention in economic and policy circles.
In an article in Look published just after his assassination (King, 1968), Dr. King wrote that: "We call our demonstration a campaign for jobs and income because we feel that the economic question is the most crucial that black people, and poor people generally, are confronting." Thirty-three years later, at the peak of a peacetime economic expansion heralded as the longest and strongest in recent history, not only is the African American unemployment rate stuck at twice that of whites, but at around 8% that figure remains at a rate that would be considered evidence of a deep recession were it to hold for society as a whole:
There is a literal depression in the Negro community. When you have mass unemployment in the Negro community, it’s called a social problem; when you have mass unemployment in the white community, it’s called a depression. The fact is, there is a major depression in the Negro community. The unemployment rate is extremely high, and among Negro youth, it goes up as high as forty percent in some cities. (King, 1968)
Yet another generation has had to witness the inability of a ‘booming’ economy to provide gainful employment for every person willing and able to work, a point well understood by Dr. King:
Economic expansion alone cannot do the job of improving the employment situation of Negroes. It provides the base for improvement but other things must be constructed upon it, especially if the tragic situation of youth is to be solved. In a booming economy Negro youth are afflicted with unemployment as though in an economic crisis. They are the explosive outsiders of the American expansion. (King, 1967)
As politicians and media figures laud the relatively lower aggregate unemployment rates and the ‘success’ of ‘welfare reform,’ more careful observers note the hidden unemployment official numbers do not account for and caution the optimists that the real test of the ‘Personal Responsibility Act’ will be as the economy goes into recession. Official unemployment figures go down not only when the unemployed find work, but when ‘discouraged workers’ drop out of the labor force, a process with harsh consequences:
[T]he expansion of private employment and nonprofessional opportunities cannot, however, provide full employment for...