I met the singing man.

One night last week, on my way back home, I stopped at a local gas station to fill up two water jugs I keep in the car.  (A habit I acquired while living in the desert for two decades.)  A thin young black man in tattered clothing was leaning against the front of the gas station building. Once he saw my water jugs, he directed me to a short hose connected to a faucet on the side of the building which worked perfectly for filling the jugs.  He said he was the night clean-up guy at the gas station.  He looked to me like he was living on the streets. Since I had been so close to doing the same a few years ago, I’m always interested in the stories of people who are at that extreme end of the American economy.  If my car hadn’t been big enough to sleep in, and if my nephew hadn’t let me surf his couch for a few months, I could have been this guy. 

This guy says he ran away from an abusive career military father and has been a local in this neighborhood ever since.  He’s been sleeping under the I-26 overpass bridge, literally a stone’s throw away from this gas station, since 1996 when he was eighteen years old.  He was born the year I graduated from high school.  He’s two years older than my son. 

I asked where he bathed. With a wry smile he said “what’s that?” “When I occasionally get a shower, the water comes off me black. I’ve learned to wash my arm-pits and other parts so I don’t smell, and I use deodorant, and I wash my clothes every week. I don’t want to offend anyone.”  And he didn’t smell, even when I gave him a hug before I left.

He wanted me to know he is not like some of those other “ignorant niggas” from South Carolina because unlike them, he has lived many different places around the world while growing up and “knows how to work and talk with white people”.  (I’ve been getting hints over the last year that the cultural divide between South Carolina blacks and whites is wider than I can imagine.  This is another one of those hints.)  He said he got third place in a singing contest a couple years ago and some people call him “the singing man”.  He sometimes sings at weddings and parties.  Unfortunately he didn’t demonstrate his singing voice.  I would have sung harmony with him. 

From what I saw, here is a bright, articulate guy, hustling a few under-the-table, very part-time jobs, all paying well less than minimum wage.  And he’s being exploited.  Yes, he is certainly missing a few components that would allow him to be a “normal” employee, which is probably why he hasn’t been able to get a full-time job his entire adult life.  But honestly, which of us isn’t missing a few components?  Some of us are just better than others at covering those holes up, allowing us to win the job offers, and leaving poor bastards like the singing man living under highway overpasses.

I told him I’m running for Congress specifically to help people like him and all of us who aren’t multi-millionaires but are at the mercy of their whims. He asked what Congress does. “What’s their purpose?”  Hmmm.  Yes, he clearly wasn’t paying attention in high school civics class, but the child-like honesty of the question caught my attention.  How do I sum up what Congress is supposed to do in just a sentence?  I finally said, “Congress makes law to help people like you and me.  But lately they’ve been helping only rich people.”  He said he’d be happy to hand things out for me, or take surveys or collect signatures because he meets lots of people, so I gave him a stack of my Cherny-for-Congress business cards.

I couldn’t stop thinking about the singing man.  Why should some bright guy, though not well educated, who grew up with the handicap of being born into an abusive family, be cut out of the workforce, be cut out of achieving what he can dream, simply because of the situation he was born into?  Accidents of birth shouldn’t determine what people can achieve.  That isn’t the American dream.  No one should find that sleeping in a hole in the dirt under a highway overpass is their best option in life. 

My American dream is that the singing man, or anyone, regardless of their specific accidents of birth, regardless of what personality components they’re missing, can find their purpose in life and with some luck and plenty of effort, they can earn a decent living focusing on that purpose.  Unfortunately, the bar to cross to get a job in private industry is a bit too high for some people with too many missing components – too many handicaps from their accidents of birth. 

And frankly, there are more people than jobs – as a matter of federal policy based on faulty economic theories. So with our current game of capitalism, some people will always be unemployed. The headlines on July 4th said we now have only 6.1% unemployment. Yippee! That’s only twelve million people with no source of income.  As many people as the entire population of the New York City tri-state area, wondering how they’re going to make next month’s rent, afford gas to get to any possible job interviews, get food next week.  

The sad truth is that most of those people will struggle to reduce their living expenses, and scrape by with under-the-table exploitative jobs like the guy I met last night, never finding a full-time job providing a living wage.  They will live week to week, from one hustle to the next, and slowly die a miserable life.  With the current rules of this game of capitalism we’ve been playing, that’s just how it’s set-up. 

A guy I worked with at IBM in the early 2000’s got laid off just a few months ago.  He’s now in his late forties.  He’d been making over $100k annually for the past twenty years, has four kids, one in college, a big house in a nice neighborhood on the coast of Florida, and he can’t find any job anywhere in the country that will give him that kind of income again.  That’s the same situation I found myself in by the end of 2008.  I’m sad it’s still happening six years later, even with just a 6.1% unemployment rate. 

Past labor secretary and creator of the movie “Inequality For All”, Robert Reich says the majority of new jobs added to the economy since the great recession have been part-time jobs.  Employers simply aren’t hiring people for full-time work anymore, finding that keeping a collection of part-time workers lowers their costs (they don’t have to provide insurance), and keeps their workers eager for more hours, whenever they can get them. Exploitation. Our economic recovery since the great recession has been great for the one percent.  Not so great for the rest of us. 

How can we stop the exploitation?  How can we give people with too many missing components to ever work in private industry a chance to participate, to find their purpose and work at it, earning enough that they don’t have to live under a highway overpass?

That’s what the Job Guarantee program I’m proposing would do.  Anyone who wants a job, and can be professional enough to keep it, can get a job – guaranteed.  A job providing a minimum living wage, probably $15/hour plus full health care coverage, working at one of a number of local non-profit organizations doing good work in local communities.  While this program wouldn’t help my old IBM friend keep his house and six-figure lifestyle, it would keep future generations of IBM’ers from losing their houses.

Think about it.  If the kids currently getting out of college and facing dismal job prospects knew they could get a decent job at a published wage, no matter what, they might just limit their future expenses to little more than the wage provided by the guaranteed job program. So when they get thrown out of their career tracks in their late forties as I did, as my friend did, as millions of Americans have been, they would not be relying on their six-figure incomes to survive. Yes, it might take a couple generations before the majority of Americans stop living beyond their means, but eventually, job losses and career exits won’t be the financial losses and life destroying events they now are.  Instead our kids and their kids will see job changes as just another mild transition in life and as opportunities for new beginnings. 

Perhaps more importantly, the job guarantee program would set the bottom end of the salary range in America.  Who would flip burgers for eight bucks an hour of part-time work when they could do meaningful work helping other people for fifteen an hour, forty hours a week, with healthcare coverage?  Employers would have to step-up their game to entice and keep employees. 

Of course the first objection people have to this idea is, “won’t that increase the prices of hamburgers at McDonalds?” If the Job Guarantee program were implemented by itself, yes, most likely management and investors would require the same level of profits and would raise prices to get those profits.  However, coupled with the 100:1 take-home pay range, the executives and primary investors of McDonalds would no longer be able to take-home multi-million dollar salaries.  Add in the additional tax enticement for businesses that become sustainable and socially responsible by becoming B-Corps, and it’s likely more profits would remain inside the company, spent on the business, the facilities, the products, research and development, and most importantly on employees.  If every business found themselves with more operating cash, more happy and dedicated employees, improved facilities and better products, hamburger prices may well go down! 

Most importantly, the job guarantee program would ensure that the singing man could earn enough dollars to sleep somewhere other than under the highway overpass, and discover which of his many talents might be his purpose in life.  Multiply that by twelve million and America really would be the land of opportunity.  That's why I'm running for Congress.