Workers in downtown London head to their jobs.
Toby Melville/Reuters

In an age of employment uncertainty and a growing income gap, urban America needs to find new ways to support its citizens.

Think about the “good” jobs of the past. Whether it's a much-lamented coal miner or a factory worker that pops in your head, what made their work good? It wasn’t the day-to-day tasks themselves, but the economic security it provided—not just the benefits and pay, but the stabilizing value it brought to individual households, communities, and society itself. In short, the good jobs of yesterday strengthened the safety net.

Today, we see the service sector replacing secure factory positions. The most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics report shows that restaurants are now creating more jobs than manufacturing and mining—adding nearly 200,000 to the economy since January. As The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson recently wrote, these positions are responsible for big chunks of urban job growth—more than a third of Cleveland’s new hires since 2015 were in restaurants, for example. Many of these types of positions offer fewer, if any, benefits, more onerous and less predictable schedules, and a typical hourly salary of $12.50—not a wage that supports a family in most of the country.

Such low-wage “growing for now” positions are also in a very tenuous position: Upwards of 47 percent of U.S. jobs at risk over the next two decades due to advances in technology, and workers earning below $20 per hour face a greater than 80 percent chance of displacement.

This age of employment uncertainty means that city leaders will need to help build a new urban safety net to help support their citizens. It’s also an opportunity to right the wrongs in the existing system and infuse equity into the equation. Here are four ways cities can help prepare for the future of work.

Make benefits portable

On-demand and contract work has become increasingly common in the modern economy. Freelancers now make up 35 percent of the workforce, and since these gig-economy jobs don't have benefits tied to employment, portable benefits are an option whose time has come. These benefits are connected to individuals rather than employers, and typically include paid leave, health insurance, worker’s compensation/unemployment, and some sort of retirement fund matching. Proposals for this type of system vary. Some suggest that benefits should be universal and administered by the government or a public/private institution created for such a purpose. Others say they should be administered by non-governmental community-based groups. Either way, portable benefits have the potential to support those who work outside the realm of the traditional 9-to-5 economy.

Most potential programs involve adding a surcharge to be paid by either the company or customer that would remit to a pool of funds for contract workers within a certain jurisdiction. The long-standing New York Black Car Fund is one such model, where fees are collected by the state from for-hire rides to help pay for workers’ compensation and other shared benefits. While it is still early to see  a wide swath of initiatives carried out, in late 2016 the New York City Council proposed a law that would provide portable benefits to taxi and ride-hailing drivers. Additionally, legislative initiatives have been pursued in New York state and the state of Washington. There is even a proposal in Congress spearheaded by Senator Mark Warner of Virginia—so expect to see portable benefits explored more all across the country.

Require employers to provide paid leave

Women make up an ever-expanding portion of the workforce—approximately 47 percent of the U.S. workforce and the majority (51 percent) of workers in professional and technical occupations. And while studies show we’ve made strides in the disbursement of family and household responsibilities between men and women, existing policies put people with children at a distinct disadvantage. The U.S. only offers unpaid leave through the Family Medical Leave Act, making it an extreme outlier amongst other developed countries, which have robust paid leave requirements.

With little substantive movement on this issue at the federal level, many cities are moving to right this monumental wrong. In San Francisco, the Board of Supervisors mandated six weeks of paid parental leave for workers, and California followed suit with a statewide policy. This long-overdue policy gives parents the opportunity to maintain their careers while starting a family, helps organizations retain employees who might otherwise opt out for financial reasons, and brings stability to the workforce and economy.

Let people with criminal records join the workforce

Nearly a third of American adults have some type of criminal record, and communities of color have been disproportionately impacted by mass incarceration policies.

More city leaders agree that past indiscretions shouldn’t prevent citizens from contributing to society, and they’re doing something about it.

Reducing employment barriers for those with criminal records through efforts like ban-the-box, which discourages employers from requiring disclosure on job applications, creates opportunities to engage more people in the labor force. To date, more than 100 cities have taken measures to eliminate employment barriers for otherwise qualified individuals who have records. As corrections institutions shift their programs from punitive to rehabilitative, cities must reassess policies that keep individuals with non-violent criminal records from actively participating in the workforce.

Explore universal basic income

As income inequality deepens, one anti-poverty policy proposal that’s gaining some global support is universal basic income (UBI), which would guarantee every citizen a regular, unconditional sum of money to bring people up to an economic baseline. A pilot project involving 100 households is currently taking place in Oakland through funding from Y-Combinator. Finland and Canada are running pilots funded by their national governments, and even here in the United States we held government-run city experiments in the 1970s. Proposed basic income programs share similarities to existing social welfare systems, with the major exception being that the benefit is universal and unconditional—regardless of age, ability, class, or participation in the workforce.

Advocates of UBI come from various camps, but generally fall into one of several categories. Many from the tech industry tout basic income as a way to counteract the economic blow of automation replacing jobs currently occupied by humans. Other supporters argue that basic income is more streamlined, efficient, and transparent than currently administered social welfare systems. Finally, there are some who endorse the idea of less work overall—arguing that a basic income can free up the time individuals currently spend working—allowing people to pursue more creative and enjoyable pursuits.

All of this being said, in this particular moment in American political life, the idea of a national program that would support UBI is probably somewhere between slim to none. Many critiques of basic income center on how it will be sustainably funded and the cultural implications of instituting such a system. Even in more progressive countries in Europe, there has been a bit of resistance to wholly decoupling social support from work. In many ways, a number of the proponents for UBI are merely laying the groundwork for what is to come—a time when automation and AI take hold more fully and disrupt a wide swath of the workforce.

What city leaders can really draw from this broader discussion is a need to plan more intently for workforce shifts, think critically about current versus future employment sectors, and re-examine how and if there are ways to support people independent of their role in the workforce. Regardless of the potential solutions—our National League of Cities research provides a broad array of ideas on how city leaders can approach the future of work and the period of great challenges but also great opportunities to come. It is a safe assumption that what is imagined as the future today might not come to pass—there are a wide range of potential career paths that are not even on our radar screens.

Our current social safety net was built for a different age. The urbanizing America of the mid-20th century faced a myriad of distinctive challenges that precipitated the need for the foundational safety net created—Social Security, Medicare, and more built strength in our society. Much of the privatized safety net we all now know—retirement plans, employer provided health care, and leave policies—grew based on the construct of a single employer for a career. But, those times have faded and the urban America of today faces vastly different economic concerns. We need a re-imagined toolkit that focuses intently on broad scale wealth inequality and the urban-rural fractures that were hardly imaginable in the Greatest Generation era of our grandparents. Now is the time for cities to lead the country forward, innovate, experiment ferociously with nationally scalable solutions, and ultimately, build a safety net for 2017—not 1947.

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