Old Fourth Ward Task Force examines structurally inequalities, future of work

District 2 Council member Amir Farokhi recently provided an update on the progress being made by the Old Fourth Ward Economic Security Task Force, an initiative he launched that aims to address wealth inequity for the most vulnerable residents in the Old Fourth Ward.

Part of the task force’s mission is to examine how designing a guaranteed income program could help residents in the Old Fourth Ward neighborhood. Generally, guaranteed income is a policy structure where a government provides citizens with a regular, unconditional cash payment. The Task Force is also exploring how private funds could be used for a pilot program.

During the task force’s November meeting, the group examined the idea of a guaranteed income program through the lens of ongoing automation, the COVID-19 pandemic, and other challenges taking shape in the job market.

“Many low-income workers were the first to lose their jobs through the pandemic,” Farokhi said. “The conversation around guaranteed income and cash assistance for those who are most vulnerable now takes on added importance. We thought it was important to look at what the future of work holds for those workers. The case for guaranteed income becomes even stronger when you look at future uncertainty and the role that automation may play in making some jobs obsolete.”

To gain a greater understanding of the current job market forces creating inequity, the task force heard from Ai-jen Poo, labor activist and director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, and Byron Auguste, co-founder of Opportunity@Work, an organization that works to make sure all individuals can work, learn, and earn to their full potential.

The discussion centered on the barriers that exist for workers throughout the economy, especially for gig workers and for people of color.

Poo, known for her advocacy of domestic workers’ rights, showcased ways in which domestic workers and other workers navigating the modern gig economy can earn and have deserved access to portable benefits such as having employers setting up more structured and recurring payments and workers being able to access benefits like paid sick leave and health care.

Auguste, a former deputy economic advisor for President Barack Obama, helped outlined how discrimination is at play in the economy and how there is structurally inequality in the job market. Given that, he noted that particularly for workers of color, additional certifications, degrees and training won’t necessarily breakdown the roadblocks and inequalities that are too often part of the structure of the job market.

The task force continues to examine how guaranteed income can help as a counterbalance to those structural inequities and discrimination and in particular, how low-income workers can start to experience greater upward mobility.

The group has one more meeting scheduled, which Farokhi said will provide an opportunity for the task force to summarize their final recommendations for what a guaranteed income pilot could look like and how certain state and local reforms could help with inequity.

“The task force was launched after the pandemic started and as we are wrapping up, I think we see the light at the end of the tunnel in 2021 with respect to the pandemic,” Farokhi said. “I think because low income communities have been hit the hardest by the pandemic, the justification for a guaranteed income pilot program becomes all the more compelling if you want to ensure that people come out of the pandemic with as strong of a footing as possible.”

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