As the new Democratic majority in the House gets ready to get to work, there’s some negative buzz about its inability to pass anything. To which I say: “Probably … for now.”
One upbeat but defensible interpretation of the outcomes of the midterm elections is that a majority of the electorate is fed up with fear over hope, lies over facts, and politics over policy. My strong suspicion is that a growing share of the electorate is increasingly open to real, substantive, fact-based policies to deal with jobs and wages, climate, fiscal policy, immigration, infrastructure, health care, criminal justice, inequality and all the other areas that federal politics has ignored in favor of Trumpian chaos.
Trump and the Republicans have exclusively and heretofore effectively focused on the divisive politics that has kept them in power and enabled them to simultaneously provide their donors with trillions in tax giveaways while starving the U.S. Treasury of needed revenue. But they have not a sliver of an answer to any of the challenges noted above. For many of us, that strategy was past its sell date long ago.
Therefore, the new House majority should spend the next two years reintroducing America to smart policies. To seed the process, with the obvious recognition that lots of people have lots of different seeds, I’ll devote this and future columns to policy ideas in each of these areas, starting now with how to reach people who’ve been left behind in places that haven’t been reached by the current expansion, which began in 2009.
(As a non-trivial aside, the only way such critical efforts will penetrate the mainstream is if the news media gives at least equal time to these ideas as to Trump’s latest tweets.)
The rise of geographic immobility: The economist’s usual solution to the problem of insufficient labor demand (jobs) in an area is for people to move to a different area. But whether it’s our older age structure or high housing costs in places with lots of jobs, moving-to-opportunity is down. Policy is going to need to bring jobs to people.
Subsidized employment: One way to do so is to make it cheaper to create jobs where they’re needed. The record shows that subsidized employment programs, often in tandem with a job training or apprenticeship component, can successfully create temporary jobs in left-behind places, especially in potential growth sectors (e.g., even in places with otherwise weak labor markets, health-care demand tends to be strong). A few Democrats even have ready-to-launch plans in this space.
Work supports: When it comes to helping low-income people climb out of poverty through work, Republicans have been using work requirements as public-benefit “termination traps,” i.e., kicking/hassling people off Medicaid rolls when they allegedly don’t meet work requirements. This is counterproductive because most poor people who can work do work, as they must, given that their families cannot live on safety-net benefits alone. What often breaks their connection to the job market are disruptions to their child care, housing and health care (and not just poor people; lots of middle-income people face similar disruptions). Thus, part of a successful jobs program is strong work supports in these areas.
Wage subsidies and higher minimum wages: One of our most effective anti-poverty programs is the pro-work earned income tax credit. Good ideas abound to expand this wage subsidy to better cover single, childless adults and to reach those who may be officially nonpoor but still face unsustainably low wage rates. Some progressives reasonably worry that such programs subsidize low-wage employers by allowing them to lower their market wage offers. That’s why higher minimum wages are a necessary complement to expanded work-based tax credits. Here again, House Democrats have plans in the offing, most notably, a phased-in increase up to $15. To reiterate a point above: No, it’s not going anywhere, but now’s the time to join this debate, especially as both these ideas exist at the rare intersection of good politics and good policy.
Bargaining power and full employment: I’ve long argued, with extensive evidence, that there’s no better social program for jobs and earnings than a full-employment labor market, which disproportionately helps lower-wage and nonwhite workers. For one, when employers must compete for workers, the latter have a bit more of the bargaining clout they’ve increasingly lacked. But to really provide workers with more clout, Congress, state legislatures and the courts will need to level the playing field for union organizing.
Remember, after a period of great success in union organizing, conservatives, who picked up over 50 House seats in the election of 1946, passed the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act. After a long period of union-membership decline marked by strong gains in employers’ rights over those of workers, along with declining labor standards and fissuring of workplaces, could the new House begin to set the stage for a legislative reversal? That’s a bold thought, but a lastingly successful jobs agenda that fails to increase worker bargaining power will be de facto incomplete.
Such history reminds us of the aggression with which conservatives have sought to deliver for their constituents seeking tax cuts, deregulation and upward redistribution. At this critical stage of our democracy, it would be both political malpractice and a fateful missed opportunity if the new House majority doesn’t proceed just as aggressively to craft and elevate a true working-class agenda that returns jobs, wages and bargaining power to working Americans.