Luskin Center for History and Policy Workshop
March 5, 2018

“Economic Policy and the Civil Rights Movement: How Coretta Scott King Helped Change Federal Reserve Policy”

David Stein, Lecturer, UCLA Departments of History and African American Studies

The sixth meeting of the Luskin Center Workshop in History and Policy was led by David Stein, a lecturer in the UCLA Departments of History and African American Studies. Dr. Stein is also a Luskin Center Innovation Fellow for 2017-2018. The workshop was entitled “Economic Policy and the Civil Rights Movement: How Coretta Scott King Helped Change Federal Reserve Policy.”

Dr. Stein’s presentation had two main goals. First, he offered an overview of the history of advocacy for “full employment” in postwar America, emphasizing the role of the Civil Rights Movement and Coretta Scott King in particular. Second, he offered an assessment of the current state of full employment advocacy in the United States.

Dr. Stein explained that many Americans expected a return to full employment at the end of the Second World War. Although there was widespread debate about the meaning of full employment, political advocates believed that those who needed or wanted to work deserved employment that provided enough income to meet their needs and enough regulation to offer a good and healthy quality of life. The Full Employment Bill of 1945 mandated that federal government aim to provide full employment across the country. The final version of the law, however, was much less comprehensive and inclusionary than the original bill after congressmen, hoping to maintain the economic and racial divisions of the Jim Crow system, removed the bill’s most innovative clauses.

The Civil Rights Movement was crucial for keeping full employment on the political docket in the 1950s through the 1970s. By the 1970s, Coretta Scott King had emerged as a central advocate in the aim to institutionalize full employment at a federal level. Scott King argued that the Federal Reserve’s interest-rate policy, imagined to be “apolitical,” had resulted in long-term trends that kept many Americans—especially people of color and women—out of work. During the stagflation crisis of the 1970s, Scott King supported legislation that would require the Federal Reserve to promote not only price stability but also maximum employment. The direct result of Scott King’s advocacy was the 1978 Humphrey-Hawkins Federal Employment Act, which institutionalized these twin goals as the Fed’s “dual mandate.”

Dr. Stein concluded his presentation with a sobering claim. Despite Scott King’s advocacy that led to Humphrey-Hawkins, the goals of Humphrey-Hawkins have still to be realized. Full employment is far from achieved in the United States, and statistics still show that unemployment disproportionately affects people of color and women.

The discussion that followed Dr. Stein’s presentation took up several present-day issues. One participant asked whether advocates of full employment have considered the possibility that full employment requires a war-based or military-based economy. Even if full employment can be achieved outside of military-based sectors, another participant suggested that it might still rely on large-scale industry that has yet to break its dependence on fossil fuels and polluting technologies.

Another series of questions debates the meaning of “full employment.” Is full employment based on a traditional 40-hour work week? To advocates of full employment consider the work of immigrants and refugees? How do advocates discuss the possibility of a future in which there are fewer jobs than there are people? What about the role of care work? And finally, how does advocacy for full employment intersect with the advocacy for a universal basic income (UBI)?

On the this set of questions, Dr. Stein reminded participants that advocates of full employment today are deeply committed to restructuring our understanding of employment. They believe that full employment in 2018 may not require the regulations of a traditional work week, and advocates, including Scott King, have called for redefining care work as employment that deserves compensation. While the subject of universal basic income remains a question for advocates, Dr. Stein clarified that supporters of UBI and full employment see themselves as working toward the same political goal: the assurance that individuals living in the United States are guaranteed safe, healthy, and viable lives, regardless of their skin color, gender, or status as citizens.