Jobs for All?


Brooks Holifield & Steven Tipton


An earlier version of this essay was originally published in the University of Chicago’s online publication, Sightings.


Since the Covid-19 pandemic took hold in the United States five months ago, the staggering effects of the virus, economic shutdown, and disrupted work and commerce have hit home. Tens of millions of Americans have lost their jobs, many of them from low-wage households. According to the Commerce Department, U.S. GDP dropped 9.5% during the second quarter of 2020, the sharpest quarterly loss ever recorded in American history. With the federal government’s initial pandemic relief bill now expired, Congress remains divided about extending public provision for the jobless and reopening the economy while keeping citizens safe.

Since the police killing of George Floyd, more Americans than ever have come to acknowledge how deep and deadly racial injustice remains across the full range of our institutions, not only in law enforcement. It infects how we work and earn, pay wages and taxes. It divides the course of our lives as we finish school and find jobs, pursue careers and follow callings, or we lose our way and our dreams, with so little to show for our labor or to save for our future. At this moment, restorative justice and social transformation beckon, while government gridlock and partisan polarization hang in the balance.

When the immediate crisis has passed, thousands of businesses that have closed their doors will remain unable to open them. Millions of Americans will remain jobless, suffer hardship, and face despair. As the economy struggles to rebound, diverging roads to recovery or relapse will bring more attention to the inequality and more anger at the unfairness this cataclysm has deepened between haves and have-nots, those sheltered and those exposed, along the lines of race and class, gender, and generation. Has the time come to take another path? Should we invest in jobs for all?

At this moment, restorative justice and social transformation beckon, while government gridlock and partisan polarization hang in the balance.

The idea is not new to American history. With one in four workers left jobless during the Great Depression, the Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps put eleven million Americans to work building roads and schools, planting trees, and painting public murals. In 1944, Franklin Roosevelt declared an Economic Bill of Rights to carry the country from war to peace with justice. Having sacrificed during four years of war, all Americans should be “free to speak and pray as they wish — free from want — and free from fear.” No less than freedom of religion and speech, the right of everyone to work at a useful job and earn enough to feed, clothe, and shelter their family in a decent home, were to be marks of a fair and just America. Dwight Eisenhower recognized full employment as the key to postwar progress and prosperity, and Martin Luther King Jr. grasped the right to earn as no less essential for full citizenship than the right to vote.

The idea is also not new to Christian social teachings. As economic inequality and free market fabulism overtook the Great Society, Catholic bishops called for “Economic Justice for All” in 1986. Loving our neighbor requires commitment to the common good, they urged, to enable everyone to take part in economic life and contribute to the commonweal. All people have a right to life, food, shelter, rest, medical care, education, and employment. All of us must, moreover, share these goods essential for flourishing, particularly with the neediest among us. There is plenty of good work to do, and there are plenty of Americans ready and willing to do it. They should have the right — guaranteed by federal and state governments — to do their share and get their share.

As economic inequality and hardship have grown ever more visible, Protestant churches as well called for work as a moral good and a right for all. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America called in 1999 for public and private sector partnerships to “generate jobs for the livelihood of more people.” Most Presbyterian pastors in 2005 agreed that every person was entitled to a decent family life “sustained by a sufficient wage.” “Every person has a right to a job with a living wage,” added the United Methodists in 2016.

Voting and earning alike mark human dignity in America. Denied such social participation and inclusion, we discover ourselves dishonored and dismissed, not just powerless and poor.

Church leaders from these and other denominations called for full employment and an end to poverty as expressions of the Gospel mandate to care for the hungry and homeless as God’s children. They appealed to the teachings of the Hebrew prophets who united in proclaiming “that people shall long enjoy the work of their hands” (Isaiah 62:51). They noted that Jesus’s parables portrayed the Kingdom of God by showing men and women at work, sowing in the fields, buying and selling, feeding families, raising sheep, and keeping vineyards. None of them confused the Kingdom with America, but they suggested that visions of the Kingdom at work and rest should inspire commitment to a just economic order.

They called, too, for America to be faithful to its promise of liberty and justice for all, left unfulfilled for millions of the least of these, without work at living wages. American citizenship has always been democratic in principle, as Judith Shklar observes, but in practice its radical ideals of freedom and equality have been contested and enacted in counterpoint to aristocratic rule and chattel slavery. Alongside the political right to vote, the social right of equal opportunity to work and earn a living proved no less central to full personhood and full citizenship, by contrast to the privileged idleness of aristocrats and the unpaid labor of enslaved persons. Voting and earning alike mark human dignity in America. Denied such social participation and inclusion, we discover ourselves dishonored and dismissed, not just powerless and poor.

American voters and earners now find themselves deeply divided and in danger of losing their lives and their livelihoods. Can faith move Christians to come together in the priesthood of all believers, and can civic virtue move citizens to protect lives in the present and provide for a fairer future? Can the creative ingenuity of the market and the responsible power of government at all levels enable everyone to earn a living at work in the private or public sector? Soon enough we must get out the vote and get back to work. All of us. ♦


E. Brooks Holifield is the Charles Howard Candler Professor, emeritus, at Emory University. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Steven Tipton is C.H. Candler Professor Emeritus of Sociology of Religion at Candler School of Theology, Emory University. Before teaching sociology of religion and morality at Emory University and its Candler School of Theology, Steven Tipton investigated cases of police misconduct for a federally funded poverty law office in Harlem.