Last week, Sen. Cory Booker introduced a bill that would conduct jobs guarantee experiments in fifteen cities. The idea of a federal jobs guarantee has gained traction on the left, intended as a government jobs program to scoop up any workers unwillingly left behind by the private sector to completely eliminate involuntary unemployment.
Here’s how Booker’s jobs guarantee bill would work, per Vox:
“The Federal Jobs Guarantee Development Act, announced by Booker on Friday, would establish a three-year pilot program in which the Department of Labor would select up to 15 local areas (defined in the bill as any political subdivision of a state, like a city or a county, or a group of cities and counties) and offer that area funding so that every adult living there is guaranteed a job paying at least $15 an hour (or the prevailing wage for the job in question, whichever’s higher) and offering paid family/sick leave and health benefits.”
The promise of a jobs guarantee is extremely compelling. Polling has found public support for the idea, showing 52 percent of Americans support the idea of the government guaranteeing jobs for everyone, and only 29 percent opposed.
It’s also an idea with a long history. Progressives from Martin Luther King through Sen. Hubert Humphrey championed a federal jobs guarantee. After the a federal employment guarantee was excised from the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act of 1978, advocacy around making the government the employer of last resort has largely been confined to a small group of academics and activists.
Until now. The jobs guarantee, in close tandem with single-payer healthcare and a universal basic income, has become a major policy contribution from the left. As prominent Democrats eye presidential runs in 2020, they’ve competed to win over the activists by co-opting their policies. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, and now Sen. Booker, have both embraced the jobs guarantee idea.
The allure of a jobs guarantee is easy to see—the promise of ending mass unemployment and economic recession is incredibly enticing. But how would it hold up in practice? The idea is to have public employment act like an accordion in response to the “rest” of the economy: public work would expand at times when unemployment would otherwise by high, and contract when it would be low. But how would that work in practice? Would kinds of actual jobs are fungible enough to fit that model?
Booker’s bill is based on work by scholars Mark Paul, William Darity, Jr., and Darrick Hamilton, who recently wrote up a jobs guarantee proposal at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. They propose creating a “a National Investment Employment Corps to achieve permanent full employment in the U.S. economy through large-scale, direct hiring by the federal government.”
Paul, Darity, and Hamilton conceive of the NIEC as a “public option for employment”—a government-provided safety net that can both employ people left behind by the private sector, and keep the private sector accountable to provide good wages and benefits. They point to the positive spillover effects of a jobs guarantee as one of its major benefits: the standards for pay and benefits set by the public jobs program would pressure private employers to keep up. Paul, Darity, and Hamilton propose that public jobs pay annual wages of $24,600 per year, or $11.83 per hour, with a full benefits package (health insurance, retirement pans, paid family and sick leave, and four weeks of vacation time per calendar year). (On wages at least, Booker would go further, offering public jobs at $15 per hour or the prevailing industry wage, whichever is higher.)
The precise jobs that a jobs guarantee would provide remain somewhat mysterious. Booker’s bill relies on local community governments and agencies to identify jobs needed on the ground. Paul, Darity, and Hamilton would have the federal government “identify areas of needed investment in the U.S. economy, including goods (examples: infrastructure, energy efficiency retrofitting) and services (examples: elder care, child care, job training, education, and health services).”
They also mention several other areas that would be a good fit for a federal jobs program, including: “the repair, maintenance, and expansion of the nation’s infrastructure, housing stock, and public buildings; energy efficiency upgrades to public and private buildings; assistance with ecological restoration and services to reduce the country’s carbon footprint; engagement in community development projects; provision of high-quality preschool and afterschool services; provision of teachers’ aids; provision of high-quality elder care and companionship; rejuvenation of the nation’s defunded postal service; support for the arts; and other activities that shall support the public good.”
Some of these jobs seem to be a better fit for the accordion-like design of the jobs guarantee than others. Public infrastructure repair and construction are classic stimulus work that can be provided by government as an employer of last resort. But child care and elder care are much more permanent jobs that we wouldn’t want people fleeing as private market conditions improve.
The jobs guarantee seems to be trying to solve two market failures at once: eliminating involuntary unemployment, and providing social goods that are currently under-provided by the market. Those twin goals drive toward a bifurcated public jobs program: one temporary “stimulus” jobs corps that does yo-yo as the economy expands and contracts, and a second much more permanent jobs corps program in communities and industries that have been long-term underserved by the private economy.
There certainly are vast regions that are jobs deserts, not to mention child and elder care deserts, too. To the extent that these three overlap, then the jobs guarantee could quickly make the government a permanently dominant employer in certain communities. Which is not inherently a problem—there are already many communities that depend on a public employer, like a university or government agencies. Communities deprived of employment opportunities today would certainly be better off with government-facilitated work than with none at all.
After all, the jobs guarantee is about much more than just an income stream. A job is a principal source of dignity for most people. Franklin Roosevelt included the right to a useful and remunerative job in his proposed Second Bill of Rights. The right to employment—the guarantee of a job—means that people will no longer live at the mercy of the markets for their livelihoods, their pride, and their dignity. A sense of self, purpose, and meaning would no longer vanish thanks to the bursting of an asset bubble, the greed of financial elite, or the cost-benefit decisions of private industry. The jobs guarantee tames the economy and puts it to work serving the human spirit.
Interestingly, a decade before his Second Bill of Rights speech, Roosevelt had opposed a permanent public jobs program. He told Congress in 1935 that public relief was a “narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit,” and characterized public work as “a few hours of weekly work cutting grass, raking leaves or picking up papers in the public parks.” His public jobs plans deliberately paid below the prevailing industry wage, so as not to displace or discourage private sector work. [See William Leuchtenburg’s Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, at page 124.]
It’s true that any old job is not necessarily an elixir of dignity and fulfillment. Many jobs are sources of immense tedium and displeasure. The types of jobs mentioned by Paul, Darity, and Hamilton certainly sound like socially beneficial sources of pride. But the paradox of the jobs guarantee is that the more it strives to provide long-term impactful work to the jobless, the more it stops looking like an employer of last resort and starts looking like a government takeover of a particular industry. (Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing.)
(Interestingly, Roosevelt’s 1940 Republican challenger, Wendell Willkie, largely embraced Roosevelt’s New Deal and even tried to outflank him on jobs, vowing to “provide jobs for every man and woman in the United States willing to work and to continue public relief to those who could not work.” [See Leuchtenburg at page 320.])
Booker appeals to the dignity of work to support his jobs guarantee bill. “There is great dignity in work – and in America, if you want to provide for your family, you should be able to find a full-time job that pays a fair wage,” he said.
His bill would do for a jobs guarantee would private funders like Y Combinator are doing for a universal basic income: seeding small-scale experiments to see if the idea could actually work as large-scale public policy. That’s probably exactly where the jobs guarantee should be right now. Given its ambition to restore purpose and dignity to millions, it’s worth seeing whether we can make the mechanics of a jobs guarantee work.