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News from EPI Ignoring the Dream: The Goal of U.S. Economic Policy Shifted from Full Employment to Low Rates of Inflation and High Rates of Profit

The key demand of the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom was for good jobs, yet 50 years later the outcome of U.S. economic policy is low rates of inflation and high rates of profit. In the new Economic Policy Institute report The Unfinished March for Job: U.S. Fiscal Policy Must Shift Back to Full Employment, William E. Spriggs (EPI research associate, chief economist at the AFL-CIO, and a professor in, and former chair of, the Department of Economics at Howard University) explains that honoring the legacy of the March on Washington requires shifting the fiscal policy lever back toward full employment and broadly shared income growth. As a part of EPI’s Unfinished March project, Spriggs examines the facts behind the March on Washington’s demand for economic success that put good jobs and income growth as a top priority.

“Since we have endured several years of disastrously high unemployment, it is understandably hard to grasp why the framers of the March on Washington viewed the then national unemployment rate of 5.7 percent as a crisis,” said Spriggs. “However, this just shows how far our expectations have fallen. Organizers of the march knew that much more could and should be done to foster full employment and enough income growth to enable all America’s families to lead decent lives.”

By the time of the March on Washington, Americans had endured a decade of downturns and weak recoveries caused or exacerbated by fiscal policies that favored guarding against inflation over providing full employment, disproportionately affecting black Americans. At 10.9 percent, the black unemployment rate eclipsed both the national unemployment rate (5.7 percent) and the white unemployment rate (5.0 percent). By the end of the 1960s, black median family income was a mere 55 percent of white median family income. The black median family income of $21,466 (in 2011 dollars) in 1960 actually sat below the poverty threshold for a family of four.

In response, the marchers called for new policies that would encourage full employment. Policymakers responded by outlawing employment discrimination in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, bringing more workers under the protections of the Fair Labor Standards Act, and holding the unemployment rate near 4.0 percent for four years. This commitment to full employment led to historically good labor market outcomes for blacks. The unemployment rate reached a low of 3.4 percent in September 1968, and stayed below 4 percent until January 1970. Since then, the only period when unemployment remained at 4 percent or below was the single year between December 1999 and December 2000. In October 2013, the unemployment rate for blacks stood at 13.1 percent.

The median income of black men also grew significantly from these policy initiatives from $16,052 (in 2011 dollars) in 1963 to $21,064 in 1968. These income gains continued until 1973, when the median income for black men peaked at $23,135 (in 2011 dollars). Thirty eight years later, the median income for black men was just nearly the same, at $23,475. In addition, the poverty rate for black children fell dramatically from 65.6 percent in 1965 to 39.6 percent in 1969. By comparison, during the 41-year period between 1969 and 2010, black child poverty fell only from 39.6 percent to 39.0 percent.

As policymakers put price stability and the defeat of inflationary pressures ahead of full employment as the guiding principle of economic policy, these gains were reversed. This resulted in rising unemployment, the weakening of workers’ bargaining power, increasing hostility to workers and unions, and the falling real value of the minimum wage.

“We need a new Full Employment Act that would launch a series of automatic fiscal stabilizers in the form of public investments and aid to state and local governments any time national payroll employment falls for three straight months,” said Spriggs. “In so doing, America would be reordering its fiscal priorities in line with what the marchers called for 50 years ago.”

To finance these programs, Spriggs suggests a new “Social Trust Fund” financed by a financial transactions tax. These proposals would ensure that fiscal policy always leaned hard against disastrous levels of unemployment.