More than Make-Work

A jobs guarantee is a messy, awkward, good idea.

Livia Gershon | Longreads | May 2018 | 10 minutes (2,366 words)

In the past several weeks, a flurry of U.S. Senators have come out in support of a federal jobs guarantee. Bernie Sanders announced that his office will propose a plan; Cory Booker filed legislation for a pilot program with Jeff Merkley, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Elizabeth Warren as cosponsors. “Creating an employment guarantee would give all Americans a shot at a day’s work, and by introducing competition into the labor market, raise wages and improve benefits for all workers,” Booker said.

The idea—that the government should provide a job for anyone who wants one—is both radical and impressively well-liked. A recent study found that 52 percent of Americans support it, compared with just 29 percent who say they’re opposed. David Shor, a senior data scientist at Civis Analytics, which conducted the research, told The Nation, “This is one of the most popular issues we’ve ever polled.”

That’s not all that surprising. Americans overwhelmingly believe that everyone who can work should work, and the obvious corollary is that everyone who wants to work should be able to find a job. In its broadest form, this premise appeals across the political spectrum, not just to liberals who want to raise wages and improve labor’s bargaining power. A Trump supporter I met while covering the 2016 New Hampshire primary, a guy deeply convinced that the country is being ruined by lazy moochers, told me, “If you can work, maybe we need to put you to work in government offices or something.”

Things get more complicated when you look at what a jobs guarantee would actually entail. What would the workers do? Proponents suggest everything from repairing bridges and retrofitting schools for energy efficiency to child care and public arts projects. As sketched out by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), a liberal think tank, a jobs guarantee would create the equivalent of 9.7 million full-time jobs paying an estimated average of $32,500 plus benefits, at an annual cost of $543 billion. With some people choosing to work part-time, that would provide work to 10.7 million of the 13.1 million Americans who are unemployed or underemployed. (The plan assumes that the remaining couple million people are in the process of switching jobs.) Booker’s bill would essentially test out a version of this plan in 15 communities, guaranteeing a $15-an-hour job to every adult living there.

To advocates, the payoff from this kind of program would be immense: In a single stroke, the government could not only eliminate involuntary unemployment but also alter the private job market. The wages and benefits at guaranteed public jobs would effectively set a floor for private employment. With more workers fully employed at higher wages, there’d be less demand for social services like food stamps. And although the program would require a significant initial investment, it would ultimately spur economic growth, as workers go out and spend their new paychecks.

Critics have already jumped in to dismiss the possibility of a jobs guarantee. To some, from the editors of the National Review to Mother Jones’s Kevin Drum, its scope and cost are “pretty damn close to insane,” as Drum put it. Government spending anxiety persists, and the recent Republican tax cut is projected to cost $2.3 trillion over the next decade. There is also the difficulty of creating jobs for a largely low-skilled workforce that changes in size depending on the strength of the economy. “In both the private and public sector, jobs are designed with an output in mind, with employing people a by-product,” Jonathan Chait wrote in New York Magazine. “If employing people becomes the primary goal, then instead of starting with a job description and finding people who can do it, you start with the people you need to hire and then find work they’re qualified to do.”

Americans overwhelmingly believe that everyone who can work should work, and the obvious corollary is that everyone who wants to work should be able to find a job.

But the potential inefficiency of a jobs guarantee program is exactly what could make it revolutionary. As Chait suggests, we typically look at workers as cogs in a profit-generation machine. A locally administered jobs guarantee program could upend that assumption. It would provide an opportunity to create a sector of jobs shaped by collaboration among neighbors, empowered to put one another’s skills to their desired use. And that necessarily messy process would promote civic engagement as communities haven’t seen in far too long.

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In some ways, the story of the American economy over the past half century has been one of declining transparency and vanishing local control. Small banks have been acquired by transnational financial concerns. Rotary Clubs made up of local business owners have been largely supplanted by the community relations departments of corporate branch offices. Labor unions and regional newspapers that once demanded accountability have shuttered or diminished. Theda Skocpol, a political scientist and sociologist at Harvard, has documented how changes in political practice have further broken down the power of local interests. Grassroots networks like the American Farm Bureau Federation and the American Legion once served to channel federal resources to meet local demand. Today, she has found, politicians rely on TV ads and professional consultants, rendering those community-based groups less relevant.

These shifts—combined with the hours we spend staring passively at screens—contribute to public distrust in and detachment from local politics, churches, and other neighborhood groups, particularly in poor and working-class areas. How could a jobs guarantee help? As a federal policy, it might seem like an expensive proposition by big, anonymous forces from far away. But to succeed, such a program would have to deliver power to communities on a personal scale. A good plan would be framed to encourage maximum local participation, so that broad swaths of the public identify with its purpose and view it as a crucial resource. The investment would have to come as much from below as from above.

Advocates of a jobs guarantee are clear on the need for on-the-ground leadership. The CBPP plan calls for federal administrators of a jobs guarantee program to work closely with state and local governments, and it advises that project proposals be developed “in conjunction with community leaders, local government officials, labor organizations, and local residents.”

Ideally, this could be taken further: Administrators of the program could be hired from among the pool of unemployed candidates, so that the program is run by those it serves. Community boards could provide a layer of oversight beyond the federal bureaucracy. Local leadership would help the program adjust nimbly to fluctuation in the number of available workers. Employment could be created according to an area’s need: in rural counties, for instance, people could be paid to drive their neighbors to remote jobs or doctor’s appointments. In cities where children suffer from lead poisoning, workers could be trained and equipped to remediate pipes and playgrounds. Communities with serious drug problems could train jobless people recovering from addiction to lead support groups for their peers.


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For insight into the promise and the perils of a program like this, we can look at two historical efforts—the Works Progress Administration (WPA), Franklin Roosevelt’s ambitious effort to employ people during the Great Depression, and the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), which passed in 1973.

The WPA commissioned workers to create an array of public buildings, parks projects, murals, and plays. At its peak, in 1938, it employed 3.3 million people. Among Roosevelt’s opponents, the program was the subject of endless jokes about its inefficiency—in one, a motorist warned that he’s approaching a WPA worksite responds “Don’t worry. I won’t wake ‘em up!” In reality, WPA workers managed to construct the Hoover Dam, extensively renovate the French Market in New Orleans, and probably build some cool stuff in your town. And, despite all the laughlines, surveys in 1936 and 1937 found the program to be reasonably popular.

People hired by the WPA weren’t passive recipients of government largess. Inspired by Roosevelt’s unprecedented use of federal muscle, many organized in unions and through left-wing organizations. Michael E. Price, a historian focused on the American South, wrote in the Tennessee Historical Quarterly about the WPA workers in Grundy County. Wages were set by the state, and in Grundy they were so low that many construction workers came close to starvation. With the help of national unions and the Highlander Folk School, a community organizing center, the workers took a stand. In 1938, they elected a slate of union-friendly local officials, including a sheriff and a roads commissioner. The newly elected politicians negotiated a deal with national WPA officials, seizing more control over local WPA jobs. Tennessee’s state-level WPA administrator pushed back, however, slashing the sheriff’s budget and then shutting down roads projects, which put more than 700 people out of work. In February 1939, 150 workers occupied the WPA office in Tracy City for a week, cooking meals and printing a daily strike newspaper on a mimeograph machine. They won a limited victory, gaining higher wages but losing the right to be supervised by the leaders they had voted in. One thing they certainly achieved was a strong sense of civic engagement.

The WPA remained controversial until the end—Roosevelt’s critics equated it to the rise of communism. Between conservatives in Congress and an improving economy as the world mobilized for war, the program began winding down soon after the Grundy County protests; in 1943, it shuttered completely.

CETA, which in 1978 employed 725,000 workers, was part of an effort by President Nixon to hand responsibility for social programs over to the states. Funds for hiring workers went to local sponsoring organizations, which were supposed to receive guidance from community boards. In practice, however, many sponsors simply handpicked council members who would sign off on their plans. Some municipalities also hired workers through the program to fill existing government positions, rather than paying employees through their regular budgets. But the alternative—hiring people who wouldn’t have otherwise qualified for a job at city hall—seemed unsavory. According to Burt S. Barnow, an economist at Johns Hopkins University, “If they hired severely disadvantaged workers who were not as productive as the regular labor force, they were accused of operating wasteful programs.”

By the time Reagan took office, after CETA had been in existence for seven years, the program was so unpopular that he killed it dead. In 1989, the New York Times editorialized that Reagan had been right to do so. Few CETA employees “graduated from public service jobs to unsubsidized employment,” it argued, having taken this for granted as the ultimate goal.

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Private industry isn’t necessarily more efficient or tidier than local politics, of course. The private sector’s pervasive nepotism, tedious billing disputes with subcontractors, jet trips, and contradictory bureaucratic orders are typically less visible than the problems that garner bad PR for public programs, but they can be just as wasteful.

Fundamentally, however, what a guaranteed jobs program would do is create a different way of thinking about employment, not strictly as a means of turning a profit but as a way to collectively find local solutions to local needs. In that sense, the complex decision-making process it would require is not a bug but a feature. Sitting in a fluorescent-lighted conference room hashing out exactly how to offer one-on-one support to kids in an afterschool program is deeply unsexy, but it’s the kind of work that forges relationships and builds scaffolding for a community. At the moment, it’s also the type of work that’s mostly available to people with the time and energy to do it for free, and the social capital to be offered the chance. Turning to people who have faced the worst of our economic system, encouraging them to take on this kind of labor, and paying them decently to do it, could be fully as important as simply eliminating the corrosive effects of high unemployment.

Still, the question of efficiency is bound to come up in any conversation about a jobs guarantee, just as it did for the WPA and CETA. Many workers who sign up for such a program would undoubtedly be people who face barriers to lucrative private-sector employment—child care responsibilities, little formal education, or disabilities. But if we apply the kinds of standards that we often do to programs benefiting poor people, a jobs guarantee would likely be seen as a failure if it didn’t get everyone working consistently and productively—and moving into private-sector employment as fast as possible. To combat that notion, communities would need to take a long view; a jobs guarantee would be an unprecedented kind of commitment. Participants would also have to be prepared to agitate, as the WPA unions did, for their concerns to be heard.

The same enthusiastic local organizing would be required to bring about a jobs guarantees program in the first place. As it happens, that work is already underway—across the country, grassroots organizations are challenging the idea that government workers are unproductive or lazy workers, and insisting that resources be shifted from an elite few to entire communities. Most visibly, the teachers’ strike in West Virginia, which took place in March, has mobilized activists across red states. Teachers are not just demanding better pay but also better treatment of students; some are calling for higher taxes on the oil and gas industries that profit from their states’ resources. In deep-blue Chicago, black teenagers have been organizing relentlessly to stop plans by Rahm Emanuel, the mayor, to build a $95 million police training academy. Instead, the young activists are calling for that money to fund a youth center for mentoring and mental health services. These kids have blitzed subway passengers with information about the campaign, surveyed neighborhood residents about the best use of municipal dollars, and staged a day-long occupation of City Hall.

In a climate of thriving progressive activism, it’s not terribly hard to imagine these kinds of efforts becoming a campaign for a jobs guarantee. The fact that so many high-profile politicians are lining up behind the idea suggests that they can imagine it, too. But a transformative federal program can never be a reality unless a lot more of us step in to help.

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Livia Gershon is a freelance journalist based in New Hampshire. She has written for the Guardian, the Boston Globe, HuffPost, Aeon and other places.

Editor: Betsy Morais

Fact-checker: Ethan Chiel