Duke professor has a plan to create jobs for everyone

Unconventional idea gains traction as unemployment lingers

CorrespondentSeptember 22, 2012 

  • How the corps would work Each state would be canvassed to develop a comprehensive list of jobs – including public road works and school or library construction to mural painting – that could be met by the Corps. Jobs would pay a minimum of $20,000 and $10,000 of benefits including medical coverage and retirement saving. Read more about Darity’s National Investment Employment Corps.
  • More information William “Sandy” Darity Jr. Age: 59 Home: Durham Education: graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in economics and political science from Brown University and a doctorate in economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Career: Currently professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University; previously he was director of the Institute of African American Research, director of the Moore Undergraduate Research Apprenticeship Program, director of the Undergraduate Honors Program in economics, and director of Graduate Studies at the University of North Carolina Family: Wife Kirsten Mullen, sons Aden, 31, and Will, 23 Honors: 2012 Samuel Z. Westerfield Award, the NEA’s highest honor. The award is named for the distinguished economist and former Ambassador to Liberia. Established in 1973, it acknowledges outstanding scholarly achievements and public service by an African-American economist. Extracurricular pursuits: Plays harmonica; recorded with artists Deneen McEachern and Jemima James, whose music was recorded on the old Tomato Records label

William “Sandy” Darity Jr., a Duke University professor and economist, has spent the past four years touting his solution to the nation’s unemployment problem: a national jobs program that guarantees all citizens 18 and older a job with a minimum annual salary and benefits.

While the plan has its critics, there is a growing chorus of economists and policy makers who argue that giving men and women paychecks does more good than giving money to private companies in the hope it will lead to job creation.

“Indirect measures to address the joblessness crisis, like stimulus packages, have not proven adequate,” Darity says. “We still have levels of joblessness unmatched since the Great Depression. A federal job guarantee would provide a direct route to full employment.”

Earlier this month, the Labor Department reported that the national unemployment rate fell to 8.1 percent from 8.3 percent in July, but attributed the decrease to more people giving up looking for work. The government only counts people as unemployed if they are actively searching.

Darity, who teaches at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy, presented his proposed solution for the country’s jobless, the National Investment Employment Corps, to the Congressional Black Caucus Deficit Commission in January, 2011, and to members of the Obama administration, including Dr. William Spriggs, the former assistant secretary for policy at the U.S. Labor Department.

Spriggs, now an economics professor at Howard University in Washington, D.C., says that a national jobs program is needed. But he’s not sure if Darity’s plan addresses the wages Americans need to make so they can keep up with inflation.

Understanding the struggle

Darity grew up in an affluent African-American home, but he has been thinking about the poor all his life.

His parents were both academics – his father was the first African-American to get his Ph.D from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill – and Darity says they taught him something he’s never forgotten: “People were not just struggling because of their personal deficiencies,” he explains. “There were structural factors at play. People weren’t poor because they made bad decisions. They were poor because our society creates poverty.”

Darity went on to graduate magna cum laude with a degree in economics and political science from Brown University and a doctorate in economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but he never lost sight of his parents’ lessons.

“I’ve always tried to think about ways in which we could change the structures that produce the unemployed and poverty,” he says.

His National Investment Employment Corps does that, he says, by creating real jobs that pay a minimum of $20,000 a year and $10,000 in benefits, including medical coverage and retirement savings.

The corps would function similar to the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps, established under President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. The WPA, which built roads and bridges and created art and literacy projects, employed about 8.5 million people from 1935 to 1943, and the Civilian Conservation Corps employed 2.5 million unskilled workers.

Darity argues that a similar public jobs program could be just as successful today, meeting the needs of states and municipalities. But this one would be permanent and on a national scale.

“I’m proposing a job for every American, removing the threat of unemployment,” he says.

Darity, who has been critical of the Obama administration, said he was not surprised that his idea was not implemented.

“This is a bold step, and the Obama administration is not bold,” he said. “I am disappointed that they have not seized the opportunity to produce authentic change in American economic life. Of course, a possible Romney administration does not hold out the promise of anything better.”

The professor, whose expertise is public policy, African-American studies and economics, believes that long-term unemployment results in not only income losses but stress-induced health issues and depression.

Issues to be resolved

Philip Harvey, a law and economics professor at Rutgers University Law School and a member of the advisory board for the National Jobs for All Coalition, says Darity’s idea is “gaining traction.”

Harvey said he agrees with Darity about the policy initiative but says some of the details need to be worked out.

Harvey helped draft the Humphrey-Hawkins 21st Century Full Employment and Training Act of 2012. The bill, sponsored by U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., does not guarantee every citizen a job but establishes a national trust fund to grant states and municipalities funds for job creation. The bill, which has partisan support, has been stuck in a House committee.

“Each of us would do something differently,” Harvey says, “But in substance this is a good faith attempt to do what Sandy and I think should be done.”

Some critics have called Darity’s idea socialism. Harvey says there is confusion between a job corps like Darity’s and the idea of “workfare” – which some critics see as dressed up welfare or public assistance.

But as unemployment lingers, Kevin Hassett, director of economic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank, says: “We should take these proposals real serious. The basic idea is a sound one given where we are.”

Hassett recently co-authored with Dean Baker, co-founder of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, an opinion piece, “The Human Disaster of Unemployment,” in The New York Times. They wrote that “Policy makers must come together and recognize that this is an emergency, and fashion a comprehensive re-employment policy that addresses the specific needs of the long-term unemployed.”

Other critics argue that the country can not afford such an undertaking. But Darity says the initial cost of the program would be about $750 billion, less than the $787 billion stimulus package. He also argues that some of the cost of the corps would be offset by savings from the reduction of unemployment benefits, welfare and food stamps.

The private sector would benefit because it could count on sustained income from the people employed by the program translating into consistent purchasing power, Darity says.

A job also means a healthier person. Higher divorce and cancer rates are associated with high unemployment, Hassett say. He was disturbed when he realized children who grew up with an unemployed father tend to make less income as adults. “It really has a negative effect during a lifetime,” he says.

As for Darity, he is not bothered by the “socialism” label.

“I don’t care what you call it,” he says. “Most of socialism has been directed to the banking community; why not spend some money on the rest of the population.”

Lacy can be reached at RIFworker@gmail.com

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service