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Economic insecurity is a growing problem. The nation needs a jobs program.

Alexandra Lopez-Djurovic poses for a photograph in the parking of an Acme supermarket after shopping for a client, Wednesday, July 1, 2020, in Bronxville, N.Y. Lopez-Djurovic was working full time as a nanny until her hours were cut substantially due to the coronavirus pandemic, so she started her own grocery delivery service that made up for some of her lost wages, but not all. With the pandemic pummeling the global economy and U.S. unemployment reaching heights not seen since the Great Depression, gig workers are clamoring for jobs that often pay less while facing stiff competition from a crush of newly unemployed workers also attempting to patch together a livelihood until the economy recovers. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
Alexandra Lopez-Djurovic poses for a photograph in the parking of an Acme supermarket after shopping for a client, Wednesday, July 1, 2020, in Bronxville, N.Y. Lopez-Djurovic was working full time as a nanny until her hours were cut substantially due to the coronavirus pandemic, so she started her own grocery delivery service that made up for some of her lost wages, but not all. With the pandemic pummeling the global economy and U.S. unemployment reaching heights not seen since the Great Depression, gig workers are clamoring for jobs that often pay less while facing stiff competition from a crush of newly unemployed workers also attempting to patch together a livelihood until the economy recovers. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens) (Kathy Willens/AP)

Even before COVID-19 hit, decades of job insecurity and wage stagnation had led to anger and resentment among those on the losing side of economic globalization and the technological revolution. Millions of Americans feared downward mobility. They had not benefited from the rising stock market: if they had any retirement savings at all, the amounts were so small that their gains were trivial.

The current crisis has increased the threats to secure and financially rewarding employment. In the decade leading up to the crisis, jobs have increasingly been lost to technology. The technology threat is not just to supermarket and fast food workers, or to truck drivers from driverless trucks.

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Before the virus, Oxford University economists estimated that close to half of America’s jobs were at risk of being lost to automation. In recent months, social distancing and working from home have boosted demand for online services, such as for shopping and teaching, conferencing and entertainment. This virus-induced demand in turn has inspired the creative energies of software designers and entrepreneurs to produce better online services.

Even when the crisis comes under control, employers may want to reduce their dependence on employees who can transmit illnesses to others. Many of the jobs lost are not coming back.

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This doesn’t mean that there will not be enough jobs. New technologies create new opportunities. But it does mean that workers will have to become more flexible and nimble. Young adults must expect to change jobs a dozen or more times throughout their careers.

Joe Biden’s challenge is now obvious: he must convince the American people that he will protect their health and safety and simultaneously address their fears that economic security is no longer within their reach.

To ensure a more prosperous future for American workers and their families, the country needs to launch a politically feasible program to create jobs through well-designed rural and urban infrastructure improvements, like Denver’s light rail system, and rural broadband projects in Wisconsin and northern Missouri. Such a program will raise low and moderate-income workers’ take-home pay through expanded and enhanced tax credits and will adequately protect workers who are unemployed through no fault of their own while forging a path for their reemployment.

The virus has also made vivid the risks of relying on employers to provide health insurance or child care. We should reduce families’ dependence on employer-based health insurance by providing younger and unemployed workers access to Medicare and enhancing parents’ ability to work by building on successful blue and red-state programs of universal pre-kindergarten.

This program would provide essential economic security, but, as important, the mental solace that is essential for well-being. Involuntary job losses are frequently accompanied by anxiety, insecurity, depression and loss of self-esteem. This often shows up in rising Social Security disability claims and sometimes in domestic violence.

In the last presidential contest, millions of voters were easily seduced by Donald Trump campaign’s extolling of nativism and peddling of snake-oil solutions to their economic plight, like protectionism and a wall on the southern border. Those policies — despite their inevitable failures — fortified people’s perceptions that foreign workers and immigrants were threatening their livelihoods. As Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson observed, “Happy countries don’t elect Donald Trump, desperate ones do.”

The electorate this November will be even more fearful than four years ago. Donald Trump has updated his playbook by denying any personal responsibility for his costly failures, banning foreign visitors, blaming blue-state governors and city mayors for his shortcomings, protecting Confederate statues and insisting that this destructive virus resulted from some diabolical Chinese plot. Once again, he is claiming to have a magic wand for creating a robust economy.

While he is offering bromides about how the economy will be great again if people would simply reopen their businesses, he and his advisers are looking to tax cuts for the wealthy as their preferred vehicle for prosperity.

Until the nation elects a government that is determined to alleviate the public’s economic insecurity, self-serving and corrupt populists will often succeed politically even though their policies will fail to solve the problems that motivate their voters to support them. Putting a stop to this is vital for the economic and mental well-being of a majority of American families — and for the survival of this nation’s democratic institutions.

Michael J. Graetz is a professor at Columbia Law School and professor emeritus at Yale Law School. Ian Shapiro is a professor of political science at Yale. Their new book is “The Wolf at the Door: The Menace of Economic Insecurity and How to Fight It.”

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