The Harm And Pain Caused When U.S. Workers Lose Their Jobs – Get our quote online

STEVE GOLDSTEIN: Concerns about economic inequality have become a regular part of the political debate in the United States in the past decade or so. But the intensity has increased as the COVID-19 pandemic has led to nearly record unemployment figures in many states. In a similar category there is economic dignity, and a large percentage of people have been able to achieve this with regular and consistent employment. Gene Sperling, a former director of the National Economic Council under the presidency of Clinton and Obama, has written a book called "Economic dignity" and is with me to talk about it. Gene, how does our current situation illustrate the importance of this concept of economic dignity? GENE SPERLING: One of the things I mention in the book is Martin Luther King's address to the 1968 health workers' strike in Memphis. It is his famous speech in which he says all work has dignity. But the line that says it is very powerful is that one day our nation will realize that the health worker is as essential as the doctor for our well-being. And I feel this is this moment. Now, for some reason, it is now making us understand that the farm worker, that the home health worker, that the domestic worker, that the delivery worker who, are essential for our life and yet we do not treat them as essential, not only in terms of not having a living wage, but the basic things that are part of a dignified life, being able to take time off for a newborn baby, being able to be there for a parent in their in their past days or months. These are things we deny millions of people in our economy. And today, when they are, it is so clear that they are putting their lives in danger for us, I think it is, it is becoming very difficult for us, to accept rightly that these health workers at home, many of them could not have taken a day of paid sick leave with their child or that 50% of the people who provide us with food have no health care. And so I think it is, in a way, a real moment for economic dignity, not only the way we treat these essential workers now, but if it changes our vision and inspires us to build a richer and stronger economic pact dignity moving forward.GOLDSTEIN: So what are some bases for getting us back on track? And although none of us wanted it, is this moment something that, in fact, as you suggest, makes people stand up and notice that we have to find a way to change the system to provide more of this dignity to the broader band of Americans? SPERLING: Perhaps to illuminate a very small light of positivity, we have seen some progress. Some, not enough. For example, there is universal paid sick leave. People are realizing, "Geez, if people have to come to work badly because they can't take a day off, this, not only morally wrong, puts the rest of us at risk." Now, for the first time ever, we are providing unemployment insurance to people who don't have a traditional job: they are employed, they are domestic. How have we ever had a country where tens of millions couldn't get unemployment insurance? The question is, will these temporary things go away or will we build them stronger during the crisis? And then, once we get them done, are we going to understand that, you know, how have we ever had a world where people worked hard, put their lives in danger for all of us and couldn't provide health care to their family? or a living wage? You know, I don't think these are radical or super-left programs. I think if you work hard, you should be able to offer your family some dignity. You can see what Adam Smith wrote, you can see it in a beautiful quote from Teddy Roosevelt on the importance of a living wage. In 1912, 108 years ago, this is a longstanding American value; that if you do your part, you should be able to work with dignity, raise your family with dignity and retire with dignity. GOLDSTEIN: How much of that dignity comes from just having the foundation to be able to take care of your family? As a derivation of this, what do you think of some of the ideas that emerged in the midst of this recession to provide monthly checks to people, for example? SPERLING: You know, I think we're seeing more power in having that kind of dignity agenda. I think what you're talking about goes to a real problem, which is losing a job in the United States, is more harmful and painful to your dignity than almost anywhere. It is always difficult to lose a job, but most countries, this does not mean that you are going to lose your home, it does not even mean that you will lose health care. It is a temporary thing. We make job losses in our country more devastating and therefore a person can work hard for 20, 30 years, but if they go through a period in a financial crisis that is not on their own initiative, they can lose practically everything. So does an agenda on economic dignity recognize that it's not just about the average average wage, but about being able to thrive and survive with dignity, even in good and bad times? And this is a great time for us because we have the ability to help workers who have lost their jobs due to a pandemic, clearly not really. Can they keep the lights on? Can they support their family? Can they stay in their home so they are ready to go back? But even so they do not lose all the dignity they have in providing for their children just because they are alive and working during a 102-year pandemic once. GOLDSTEIN: Where does dignity come from when we try to get out of this path of inequality? How much of a battle is it, frankly, especially in this political world in which we find ourselves? You worked for a couple of administrations. I have been hard fought, I'm sure of it. SPERLING: You know, you don't see Americans shocked that an Oprah Winfrey or Bill Gates or someone who is contributing is doing well or has a certain amount of wealth. What they don't want is when inequality in our country means exactly that: that some people are denied these fundamental levels of dignity that are truly universal. I mean, if there is something that was given by God, it is that our greatest moments of joy and meaning often come through the birth of our family that is there, the birth of our children who are there to the key moments of loved ones during life. And when you have an economy that doesn't allow it, then I think … Yet it promotes so much inequality. It's not just about reducing the wealth of the super rich. It's about what kind of economy you're building. And I think what we have to start is that everyone has a basic level of economic dignity, a subsistence wage, healthcare, universal paid leave or the right to have a collective voice to defend themselves. These are things we can guarantee to all Americans. That doesn't mean you don't have capitalism. This does not mean that some people will not do more or have more beautiful houses. But it is not based on an exploitation or on the suffering of others, but on the basis of a foundation in which everyone has the guarantee of a basic level of economic dignity and to grow their family in work and retirement. GOLDSTEIN: This is Gene Sperling. He was director of the National Economic Council under President Obama and President Clinton. His new book is called "Economic dignity". Gene, thank you very much for the time and you're fine, we appreciate it. SPERLING: Thank you very much for having me. More stories from KJZZ