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Why Is There No Right To Employment In America? Liberal Limits On American Employment Policy, 1933-2000

  • Author(s): Bowring, Anais Miodek
  • Advisor(s): Brown, Michael K.
  • et al.
Creative Commons 'BY-NC-ND' version 4.0 license

This project looks at American employment policy development between the 1930s and the 1990s and asks why government policies did not do more to ensure that there was enough employment for all would-be workers. I start with two key premises: first, that sufficient employment is essential to America's economic goals, both at a national level and at an individual level; second, that in America, paid, private employment has long been a marker of social inclusion, which makes access to stable and secure work even more important. This means that the limited scope of employment policy -- particularly the general lack of intervention to guarantee sufficient jobs -- is puzzling. I follow a case study approach, analyzing employment policy in three periods: the New Deal, the Great Society, and the Reagan Revolution. Using extensive archival material I demonstrate that America's liberal tradition has created an enduring constraint on employment policy: enshrining the responsibility to obtain work as individual rather than governmental and mandating that the government minimize its labor market intervention.

I break this liberal constraint down into two ``currents'' that pertain to employment. The first current -- work-as-citizenship -- establishes a tie between paid private employment and social citizenship, and further instructs that individuals must obtain such work for themselves. The second current -- labor-market anti-statism -- restricts federal intervention in the labor market, particularly restraining governmental efforts to create employment outside the private sector and imposing additional conditions on the employment interventions the government can take.

Between the 1930s and 1990s there were periodic challenges to the currents' boundary condition on employment policy. The elite level policy debates within the executive branch that embodied these challenges serve as my dissertation's empirical sites of investigation. These challenges, resulting from both economic and political circumstances, resulted in a variety of policy adaptations that stretched the liberal currents' limits, though the boundary condition itself remained intact. However, employment policy debates and outcomes in the 1980s-1990s also show that there is potential for work-as-citizenship to be leveraged as a basis for employment policies that ensure greater economic stability for all Americans.

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