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Bernie Sanders offers jobs plan as answer to racism challenge

Called out on racial inequality, Sanders proposes $5.5 billion employment program aimed at black, Latino youths

Tying racial justice to economic inequality, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders has called for a $5.5 billion federal jobs program that could provide its biggest benefit to unemployed youths of color. 

The proposal, published on his campaign website on Sunday, is highlighted near the bottom of the website’s Racial Justice page, which appeared on the site after a protest on Saturday in which Black Lives Matter activists effectively shut down a Sanders rally in Seattle. The program is listed among a number of other proposals intended to counter what it called “economic violence” against people of color.

The Sanders campaign has spent the last few weeks grappling with how to better address issues of racial inequality, after an incident last month in which Black Lives Matter protesters disrupted an event in Phoenix that featured Sanders. The proposals appear to be a response to demands from Black Lives Matter and affiliated groups that he more forthrightly articulate how he plans to help communities of color.

Many of the proposals listed on the Racial Justice page — including demilitarization of local polices forces, expanded voting rights and a ban on for-profit prisons — have already been embraced by other liberal politicians and advocates. But the call for a youth employment program stands apart, tying racial justice to wealth inequality, the main theme of the Sanders campaign.

The $5.5 billion figure attached to that program did not emerge from thin air. That’s the projected cost for the Employ Young Americans Now Act, which Sanders and Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., introduced in early June. That legislation would pour billions of federal dollars into locally administered job creation programs, with the intention of generating employment for roughly 1 million 16-to-24-year-olds.

Sanders has frequently cited elevated unemployment among black youths as a major concern, and he did so again in his June statement introducing the Employ Young Americans Now Act.

“Today in our country, youth unemployment is 17 percent, and black youth unemployment is 27 percent,” said Sanders. “This is unacceptable. This is having a huge impact on our society, and this cannot be allowed to continue."

A June report, commissioned by Sanders, from the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute found that unemployment among black high school graduates ages 17 to 20 is more than 50 percent. For whites of the same age and education level, it’s 33.8 percent, the report found. Among black college graduates ages 21 to 24, unemployment was 23 percent — nearly twice the rate for whites.

William Darity, a public policy professor at Duke University, said that the Employ Young Americans Now Act does not appear to target African-American unemployment but that it could have a “disproportionate benefit” because the unemployment figure for black youths is so much higher. He lauded the impulse to create a universal benefit that has the practical effect of lending more assistance to the least well off.

“My preference is for a program that I would describe as redistribution without confiscation,” he said. “If we can redistribute wealth without taking wealth away from anyone, that seems to be the optimal kind of policy."

Still, Darity said the Sanders plan doesn’t go far enough and focuses too narrowly on youth unemployment. The $5.5 billion program “would make sense to me if it was a pilot for a larger project, but it merits a much larger vision,” he said.

Darity has spent years advocating for what he said would be a more ambitious and effective program: a blanket job guarantee, turning the government into an employer of last resort for able-bodied, unemployed Americans, regardless of their age. His ideal policy would emphasize its employment function over providing job training —something he said the Sanders plan does not do.

“It strikes me that the Sanders proposal has some echoes of this notion that the reason people are out of work is they don’t have the requisite skills,” he said. “In reality, it’s the absence of a sheer number of adequate jobs."

Calls for a federal job guarantee have a history in the civil rights movement. In 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Council issued an open letter proposing an “economic and social bill of rights,” including the right to a “decent job.”

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