Helen Lachs Ginsburg, Jobs-for-All Scholar-Activist

Scholar, activist, advocate for living wages and a job guarantee, and D&S supporter Helen Ginsburg passed away on October 8th. Her obituary appeared in the New York Times on November 6th (online version here). Below is an obituary from Gertrude Schaffner (“Trudy”) Goldberg of the National Jobs for All Network, a close friend of Helen’s and a frequent D&S author.  –Eds. 

Photo of Helen Lachs Ginsburg
Helen Lachs Ginsburg in an undated photo. A Brooklyn College professor, she was a founding member of the National Committee for Full Employment, which was led by Coretta Scott King.Credit…via Ginsburg family.

Helen Lachs Ginsburg, Scholar-Activist and Leader in Advocacy of Living-Wage Jobs for All

Helen Lachs Ginsburg, life-long advocate for full employment or a Job Guarantee, died on October 8th at the age of 91. She retired some years ago as Professor Emerita of Economics from Brooklyn College.  Professor Ginsburg gained distinction in a field that was dominated by men, particularly some seventy years ago when she launched her career as an economist.

As a founding member of the National Committee for Full Employment, led by Coretta Scott King, Ginsburg wrote and lectured around the country in the 1970s in support of  the full employment legislation proposed by Representative Augustus Hawkins (D-CA) and co-sponsored  by Senator Humbert Humphrey. The original legislation would have given everyone a decent job who wants one–a key policy to reduce inequality and poverty.  Thus Ginsburg was a link between those like her who fought for full employment fifty years ago and the young activists now pressing for a job guarantee, a $15 minimum wage, and a Green New Deal that would include a right to living-wage work.

The Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment and Balanced Growth Act of 1978, a much watered-down version of the legislation originally proposed by Representative Hawkins, guaranteed neither full employment nor balanced growth. In the wake of that disappointment, Professor Ginsburg began her study of Sweden’s successful, sustained full employment policy. Visiting that country with a grant from the Swedish Bicentennial Fund, Ginsburg conducted numerous interviews with trade union leaders, government officials, and academics, including such luminaries as Gunnar and Alva Myrdal–not to mention many unemployed persons whom she met at Labor Market Training Centers, employment offices, and rehabilitation centers. The result of that research—her 1983 book, Full Employment and Public Policy: The US and Sweden– was an important influence on the thinking of those who, despite the disappointing results of Humphrey-Hawkins, continued to advocate full employment—or as Helen Ginsburg referred to that goal in the title of a 1978 article in The Nation: “Jobs  for All.”

Upon learning of Professor Ginsburg’s death, the distinguished economist L. Randall Ray, wrote that her 1983 book that introduced readers to the Swedish model of full employment helped him and his colleagues at both the University of Missouri’s Center for Full Employment and Price Stability and the Levy Economics Institute at Bard College to get started with their work on full employment. Similarly, Professor of Law and Economics at Rutgers Law, Philip Harvey was encouraged by Ginsburg’s book because its detailed treatment of the Swedish experiment convinced him that “incremental progress could achieve revolutionary social change over time.”  Historian Frank Stricker, whose latest book is American Unemployment, Past, Present, and Future, wrote: “I used her books in my work.  Such a model of devotion to the cause and to the truth. ” Eduardo Rosario, Executive Board member of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, wrote, “This is a tremendous loss for all of us and for working people everywhere.”

In the 1980s, when the disappointing results of the Humphrey-Hawkins struggle led many progressives to give up on full employment, Helen Ginsburg was a mainstay among the scholars and activists who kept alive the dream of living-wage work for all–in a group called New Initiatives for Full Employment or NIFE. Soon after, members of NIFE, led by Columbia professor Sumner Rosen, initiated the Columbia University Seminar on Full Employment—as one means of refining the group’s ability to conceptualize full employment and to contribute to its political resurgence. This Seminar which Helen Ginsburg co-led for many years, provided an opportunity for full employment advocates to meet with scholars and activists in this country and abroad.

The proceedings of the Seminar on Full Employment contributed to the conceptualization of full employment in a 1994 book or manifesto that Ginsburg co-authored with Sheila Collins and Gertrude Schaffner Goldberg:  Jobs for All: A Plan for the Revitalization of America. Their plan for revitalizing this nation was “based on the philosophy that work and production, exchange and distribution should be redesigned in ways that are conducive to the full development of the innate potential of all people and to the sustainability of the ecosystem.” Their book launched the successor to NIFE, the National Jobs for All Coalition (now National Jobs for All Network). Helen Ginsburg was a co-founder of the National Jobs for All Coalition and,  for the rest of her life, a member and mentor to its Board of Directors.  According to Gertrude Schaffner Goldberg, Chair of the National Jobs for All Network, “Helen Ginsburg was a model of a scholar-activist whose research and writing, always informed by her engagement in the struggle for economic justice, was an inspiration and impetus to all who carry on the struggle for “jobs for all.” The National Jobs for All Network is deeply indebted to our co-founder and diminished by her death.”

Beginning with her work on Swedish full employment policy, Helen Lachs Ginsburg was a trail-blazer in cross-national or comparative study. She continued to study, visit, and write about Sweden in the years following her initial research there. In 1990, she was a Guest Scholar at the Wissenschaftscentrum in Berlin in 1990, an opportunity that broadened her cross-national perspectives. A subsequent presentation to the Columbia Seminar reflected that research: “Jobs for All: Values, Concepts, and Policies in the US, Germany, and Sweden.” Professor Ginsburg encouraged her colleagues to follow her example of engaging in cross-national study, and she informally mentored and co-authored work with them.

In paying tribute to Helen Professor Ginsburg, Gűnther  Schmidt, Director Emeritus of the Wissenschaftscentrum  in Berlin where Ginsburg was a Guest Scholar, admired “her broad approach of combining philosophy ofwork with sound economics.” This broad approach is exemplified in an article in the Department of Labor’s Monthly Labor Review, “Flexible and partial retirement for Norwegian and Swedish Workers,” for which Ginsburg was awarded the prestigious Lawrence R. Klein Award.

In his remembrance, Professor Schmid called attention to Ginsburg’s 2011 article, “Historical Amnesia: The Humphrey‑Hawkins Act, Full Employment and Employment as a Right,” published in “Review of Black Political Economy.” The article reminded him of “the legacy of the Roosevelt’s New Deal and the original Humphrey-Hawkins proposal, freshly and powerfully reformulated in her conclusion”: “Full employment […] shifts power from capital to workers […]. The right to a job […] is a visionary concept and can be empowering. […]. Living wage jobs as a right may seem unrealistic but so once did the right of all children to go to school, the right of women to vote and the abolition of slavery.”

Helen Lachs Ginsburg  was born  and lived her entire life in New York City. She is a graduate of Queens College and earned her doctorate in Economics from The New School. She leaves her husband of more than 60 years, Nathan Ginsburg of Flushing, New York, her brother and sister-in-law Sherman and Lorraine Lachs of Scottsdale Arizona, and a number of nieces and nephews.