The Fierce Urgency of Full Employment

Commentary
August 27, 2013By Juan Carlos Ordóñez

This Labor Day is a particularly appropriate time to consider Oregon’s job market, as it comes on the heels of the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

While the march may be best remembered for “I Have a Dream,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s stirring call to end racial segregation, the lack of work and economic opportunity faced by millions of Americans, black and white, also animated Dr. King and the other civil rights leaders who brought the masses to Washington.

The economic demands issued during the March on Washington — particularly the call for full employment — resonate loudly in the context of today’s depressed job market.

Related materials:

Fact sheet: A Long Road Ahead for Oregon Workers, August 26, 2013

Though down from its peak, Oregon’s unemployment rate remains high by historical standards.

The unemployment rate, moreover, does not reflect the full dimension of the problem. That figure does not capture those who are working part time because they cannot find full-time work. Nor does it include those who are “marginally attached” to the labor force — those who are available to work and have job hunted but have not searched for work in the past four weeks. The rate of unemployment plus underemployment combined in Oregon was 17.2 percent last year.

Oregon’s economy still has about 72,000 fewer jobs than it did in 2007, before the start of the recession. When you factor in population growth, Oregon’s jobs hole grows deeper, to about 178,000 jobs.

Absent significant changes in federal and state policies, it will likely take until 2018 for the number of jobs per 100 working-age Oregonians to return to the pre-recession level. Thus, on present course jobs will remain scarce for several more years.

It’s the unemployed and their families, of course, who bear the brunt of a weak labor market. They endure financial stress and dashed hopes.

Yet, a weak labor market harms those who have jobs, too. When jobs are scarce, workers don’t have much leverage in bargaining for better wages, regardless of whether the economy grows and companies pocket large profits.

What policies can turn around the situation for workers in Oregon and the nation?

The right state policies can help blunt some of the effects of a weak job market. For example, Oregon could improve the affordability of and access to child care, helping remove a barrier to employment that many families confront; improve the state’s unemployment insurance system, making it available to more workers; and invest more in job training programs that help those currently outside the workforce gain skills employers are seeking.

States can also lay the foundation for a stronger economy by investing in education. The better educated a state’s workers are, the more productive a state’s workforce is and the more a typical worker earns.

Economist Jared Bernstein, among others, stresses the need for a national goal of full employment. What would it take to have full employment right now? An employment rate no higher than 5.5 percent, and possibly lower.

At a time when the labor market is depressed, getting to full employment requires a robust federal jobs program, including large investments in infrastructure.

Such policies echo the specific demands of the March on Washington: “full and fair employment” and a “massive federal works program.”

In “I Have a Dream,” Dr. King spoke of the “fierce urgency of now.” Today, much like 50 years ago, the fierce urgency is to use all of the tools at our disposal to put people back to work. Now.


Juan Carlos Ordóñez is the Oregon Center for Public Policy's communications director