The conservative approach to social programs has evolved in sophistication over the decades. With frontal assaults on Social Security and Medicaid having been badly beaten back, the GOP has repackaged its attempt to roll back these programs by putting recipients to work.
Work requirements were the cornerstone of the 1996 welfare reform, and each subsequent assault on public benefits has used them to kick in the door. Want food stamps? Work. Want Medicaid? Work. Want disability? Work.
After all, if a person is physically able to, why shouldn’t they work just like everybody else?
But an approach catching fire among activists and even some high-level elected Democrats answers the question by turning it on its head, drawing on an idea with a storied history in American politics. If working is so important, then why shouldn’t the government provide a job directly to somebody who can’t find one?
For years considered the province of renegade economists, the idea that everyone should have a job if they want or need one — and it’s the government’s job to make that possible — has begun once again to creep into mainstream conversation.
In the last week alone, rumored 2020 hopeful Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., told The Nation that “guaranteed jobs programs, creating floors for wages and benefits, and expanding the right to collectively bargain are exactly the type of roles that government must take to shift power back to workers and our communities.”
And Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., another presumed 2020 aspirant, has begun looking closely at this issue, a source close to her told The Intercept. Senate aides have begun interoffice meetings to grapple with how to draft a workable bill, aides in two separate offices told The Intercept.
Sanders’s former senior economist on the Senate Budget Committee, Stephanie Kelton, who went on to advise his 2016 presidential bid, has been a longtime proponent of the idea. The Sanders Institute — where Kelton is now a fellow — released a filmed conversation between her and Jane Sanders dedicated to discussing the idea after Kelton completed a paper on the policy. Kelton, in her interview with Jane Sanders, said a job guarantee was something she had brought up with Bernie Sanders in her initial job interview years ago.
A federal job guarantee is exactly what it sounds like. “The private sector,” Hamilton tells me, “does not absorb stigmatized workers — those that are formerly incarcerated, black, disabled — at the same rate that it does nonstigmatized workers. A job guarantee would enable workers, particularly at the lower end of the labor market, but throughout the labor market too. It would remove the threat of unemployment and of being destitute.”
By making living-wage work available to anyone who wants it, the program would also establish a de facto wage floor, forcing private sector employers to match the kinds of wages, working conditions, and benefits available to workers through the public sector. “It gets rid of involuntary unemployment altogether,” Hamilton said.
A federal guaranteed-jobs program “gets rid of involuntary unemployment altogether.”
Once a fixture of Democratic Party platforms, the idea’s resurgence is evidence that a growing number of Democrats see their political fortunes tied to their embrace of the kind of big, expensive programs that used to be the party’s bread and butter. Perhaps still more significant than this bald-faced embrace of progressive and even left ideas, though, is the broader shift it might signal in how today’s Democrats think about budgets, spending, and deficits. As the 2020 primaries near, there’s a real chance that the party’s hopefuls could begin falling over each other to embrace different versions of a federal job guarantee, along with proposals like “Medicare for All.” In the process, they might just make deficit spending great again.
As savvy politicians are starting to realize, embracing big spending could be an electoral boon. Accompanying Gillibrand’s quote to The Nation was new polling on the job guarantee from Data for Progress and Civis Analytics, which found that 52 percent of those surveyed support the idea of promising “a job to every American adult, with the government providing jobs for people who can’t find employment in the private sector,” paid for “by a 5 percent income tax increase on those making over $200,000 per year.” Almost 7 in 10 Hillary Clinton voters support a job guarantee, which has 62 and 55 percent support among black and Latino voters, respectively. The idea enjoys overwhelming support across state lines and has comparable backing among rural and urban voters.
It shouldn’t be all that surprising: Given the fact that jobs and the economy reliably top voters’ priorities on both sides of the aisle — and big, universal programs like Social Security and Medicaid remain overwhelmingly popular — the notion of the U.S. government employing people directly seems in some ways like a natural extension of the benefits that the state already provides. The sheer scale of such a program also flies in the face of how policy gets made in Washington.
Since the passage of the Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act in 1974 and the ensuing creation of the Congressional Budget Office, any given piece of legislation’s financial viability has been assessed mainly by one question: How much money will it add to the federal deficit? Nominally, the CBO provides an independent analysis of proposed legislation’s impact on federal spending and revenues. In effect, CBO analyses — or “scores” — can damn legislation to purgatory before it ever comes to a vote. Yet the sticker price of a policy is just one of many factors that contribute to its overall effect on the economy and society more broadly: Does it, for instance, meet a pressing public need? Will it increase or decrease inequality?
“If we had had CBO in 1935, we wouldn’t have Social Security. If we had it in 1964, we wouldn’t have Medicare,” Kelton tells me. “It has become in many ways the key impediment to the progressive agenda and just good economic policy generally.” To get that, she argues, progressives will need to be willing to disregard their proposals’ CBO scores or work to reform the way that they’re calculated. She proposed a rebranding: “Change the word ‘deficit’ to ‘non-government surplus.’” (A government deficit, in accounting terms, necessarily means that the economy is experiencing a private sector surplus. People like surpluses and dislike deficits, so Kelton’s approach would simply redirect attention to the part of the equation that people like.)
A common response among progressives, instead, has been to present their policies as a two-step process: Tax the bad — corporate profits, financial sector speculation, offshore earnings, etc. — to pay for the good, be it health care, free education, or renewable energy.
As Kelton asks, “Why not decouple those fights? Go after the rich — fight to return the estate tax to some reasonable level, for instance. But don’t hold the nation’s infrastructure, the poor, and the sick hostage to increasing tax revenue.”
There are signs that decoupling may be starting to catch on. Discussing his ambitious plan for debt-free higher education, Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, recently refused to answer the question of how he has intended to “pay for” the measure. “I don’t play the pay-for game. I reject the pay-for game,” he explained to Vox, an outlet whose devotion to policy wonkery can sometimes get it bogged down in CBO speak. “After the Republicans did the $1.5 trillion in unpaid-for tax cuts, and as we’re doing a bipartisan appropriations bill — which I support — which is also an increase in federal spending [that’s] unpaid for, I just reject the idea that only progressive ideas have to be paid for. We can work on that as we go through the process, but I think it’s a trap.”
As Schatz alluded to, deficit spending has always been great for the GOP — so long as they’re the ones doing the spending or cutting the taxes. But once Democrats come back to power, Republicans’ seemingly religious opposition to deficits returns, and Democrats dutifully put out calls to “tighten our belts.”
“The No. 1 most important myth in American economic debates,” campaigner Ady Barkan said, “is that deficits matter, and that we have to raise taxes to pay for spending. … Bill Clinton cut deficits by cutting welfare. Then George W. Bush blew up the deficit for his wars and his tax cuts. Barack Obama tied himself in knots trying to be the responsible deficit cutter. First as tragedy, then as farce, now as Donald Trump.”
When it comes to federal spending, Barkan argues, “people don’t have deeply held beliefs. It’s not like guns or abortions or something like that. People don’t give a shit about deficits. You tell them that they can have free health care and child care and infrastructure, and they’ll accept that.”
A longtime organizer, Barkan — who has Lou Gehrig’s disease — gained national recognition after his viral confrontation of Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., over his support for the Republican tax plan and the cuts to Medicare that it would impose. When he was diagnosed with ALS in late 2016, Barkan was working with the Center for Popular Democracy on a campaign to reform the Federal Reserve and American monetary policymaking with it. Following Trump’s election, he has continued to fight for that and against a range of Republican policies.
“If I had five years of health ahead of me now,” he told me, “I would want to launch a campaign to guarantee everyone a good job and say, ‘If you’re unemployed, we’re not going to give you unemployment benefits; we’re going to give you a living wage job taking care of kids, taking care of old people, cleaning the streets, installing solar panels, building public housing, writing plays, singing songs.’ There’s no end of productive work we can put people to work doing.”
The kind of truly full employment Barkan is calling for isn’t a new idea.
The first tenet of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1944 Economic Bill of Rights is the “right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries or shops or farms or mines of the nation.” In a dissenting Supreme Court opinion in 1972 — in a case on alleged discrimination in the firing of a Wisconsin State University-Oshkosh professor — Justice Thurgood Marshall contended that the right to a job was guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. “Every citizen who applies for a government job,” he wrote, “is entitled to it unless the government can establish some reason for denying the employment. This is the ‘property’ right that I believe is protected by the Fourteenth Amendment and that cannot be denied ‘without due process of law.’ And it is also liberty — liberty to work — which is the ‘very essence of the personal freedom and opportunity’ secured by the Fourteenth Amendment.”
As late as 1980, the Democratic Party’s platform stated that “we must require work or necessary training leading to work of every capable person, except for the elderly and those responsible for the care of small children. However, we cannot make this requirement effective unless we can assure employment first through the private sector and, if that is insufficient, through public employment. We must provide an income floor both for the working poor and the poor not in the labor market” (my emphasis).
Some of the people who first pushed the job guarantee onto the national stage, though, didn’t always enjoy a cozy relationship with the Democratic Party. David Stein, a UCLA historian working on a book about the legacy of the job guarantee in the United States, traces it back well over 100 years, to radical Reconstruction after the Civil War and the fight for what W.E.B. Du Bois called “abolition democracy.” Heavily influenced by Du Bois and his writing on Reconstruction, labor and civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph went on to become one of the century’s most dogged advocates for a job guarantee.
“For Du Bois and Randolph,” Stein tells me, “abolition democracy is about abolishing the violence of slavery, of a society that could allow slavery and all the institutions that are attached to it, and creating new institutions. Those new institutions express themselves in different forms, depending on their historical moment. That form, starting in the 1940s and on, becomes job guarantees.”
Randolph was one of the key organizers of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, at one point slated to be called the “Emancipation March for Jobs.” That iconic demonstration was a response, in part, to the little-remembered recession of 1958, which like most economic downturns hit black workers the hardest. Among the demands of that march was a “massive federal program to train and place all unemployed workers — Negro and white — on meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages.” Yet despite the size and historic nature of the March on Washington, Randolph and fellow organizer Bayard Rustin didn’t see the momentum they generated translate into influence over lawmakers. Added to this was a frustration that the gains of the civil rights movement on issues like desegregation and voting rights had not, by and large, translated into improved economic conditions for African-Americans more broadly.
The closest thing to a job guarantee that the U.S. has had in recent memory is the U.S. military, which provides a decent standard of living, debt-free higher education, health care, and decent benefits — provided you’re willing to risk your life for it. That wasn’t so different than in the post-war era, when so-called military Keynesianism provided GIs with the kinds of amenities usually associated with social democracies. As Stein points out, though, Dixiecrat politicians worked assiduously to ensure that the welfare state of that era — robust compared to what we have now — never fully extended to communities of color.
The closest thing to a job guarantee that the U.S. has had in recent memory is the U.S. military, which provides a decent standard of living, debt-free higher education, health care, and decent benefits — provided you’re willing to risk your life for it.
Reflecting on the state of the civil rights movement in 1965, Rustin wrote, “I fail to see how the movement can be victorious in the absence of radical programs for full employment, abolition of slums, the reconstruction of our educational system, new definitions of work and leisure. Adding up the cost of such programs, we can only conclude that we are talking about a refashioning of our political economy.”
From there, civil rights leaders, economists, and unions worked to create the Freedom Budget, released in 1967 by the A. Philip Randolph Institute, where Randolph served as president and Rustin as executive director. The budget sketches out an ambitious economic program for everything from education to monetary policymaking. “For the first time,” its authors stated, “everyone in America who is fit and able to work will have a job. For the first time, everyone who can’t work, or shouldn’t be working, will have an income adequate to live in comfort and dignity. And that is freedom. For freedom from want is the basic freedom from which all others flow.”
In the foreword to the Freedom Budget, Martin Luther King Jr. urged that policies be universal, rather than either means-tested or directed solely at vulnerable populations. As he wrote, “We shall eliminate unemployment for Negroes when we demand full and fair employment for all,” he committed his Southern Christian Leadership Conference to pushing for it. “We must dedicate ourselves to the legislative task to see that it is immediately and fully achieved. I pledge myself to this task and will urge all others to do likewise.”
A close collaborator with Rustin and Randolph, Coretta Scott King first got interested in a job guarantee during her involvement with the Progressive Party in the 1940s, and she continued to carry the torch of that demand long after her husband’s assassination in 1968. Stein and other historians have credited her sustained activism on this front with helping to pull King further to the left over the course of his life and engage more deeply with economic issues. In Memphis, just days after her husband’s death, Scott King marched in support of the striking sanitation workers her husband had died fighting alongside. “Every man,” she said at the time, “deserves a right to a job or an income.” In 1974, she founded the National Committee for Full Employment/Full Employment Action Council to fight for legislation that guaranteed jobs to all Americans. As Stein’s research has highlighted, the organization was instrumental in pushing forward the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act, which put teeth behind the Fed’s nominal, but at that point, often ignored mandate to “promote full employment and production, increased real income, balanced growth, … adequate productivity growth, proper attention to national priorities, achievement of an improved trade balance, … and reasonable price stability.”
While hardly a radical proposal in the scope of American history, the demand for a job guarantee does offer a radically different idea of what constitutes “full employment.” Even with the Humphrey-Hawkins Act in place, the Fed has tended to define the term loosely along the lines of something called the nonaccelerating inflation rate of unemployment, or NAIRU, usually set at somewhere around 5.5 percent. The theory posits that unemployment below a certain level — a so-called natural rate of unemployment — will trigger accelerating inflation, potentially putting the economy on a path toward the dark days of double-digit inflation in the late 1970s. But for the millions of people embedded in that 5.5 percent, it doesn’t feel like full employment.
Since the mid-1980s, empirical evidence has suggested that the theoretical link between unemployment and inflation is overblown. Unemployment has continued to tick downward, while the Fed has been consistently unable to meet its 2 percent inflation targets over the last several years. The Federal Open Market Committee, the policymaking body of the Fed, has had to keep revising its NAIRU estimates downward. “NAIRU isn’t just a useless concept, it’s a counterproductive one that encourages policymakers to focus on the jobless rate as a means to an end (price stability) even though there is zero connection between the two variables,” Matthew Klein writes in the Financial Times. And despite the fact that the Fed moved to raise interest rates last week, it isn’t really sure why. When he announced the decision, Fed Chair Jerome Powell was forced to admit that “there’s no sense in the data that we’re on the cusp of an acceleration of inflation.”
If enacted, a federal job guarantee — driving unemployment to its lowest levels yet — might just hammer a final nail into the coffin of NAIRU and the more archaic parts of the FOMC’s inflation playbook. As Hamilton told me, “The notion of the ‘natural rate’ of unemployment would go away with a federal job guarantee.”
A forthcoming paper from Stephanie Kelton and other researchers with the Levy Institute of Bard College uses a macroeconomic model developed by Yale economist Ray Fair to run the numbers on a program for full employment, looking at the impact it would have on a range of economic indicators: state, local, and federal budgets, inflation, the federal deficit, and more. Unsurprisingly, a federal job guarantee — federally funded and locally administered, with wages set at $15 and hour — would increase the federal deficit. It would also cause a slight, short-term rise in inflation. Something else happens too: “What you see is the government deficit increasing, but state and local budgets moving in the reverse direction,” Kelton said, as millions of people enter the job market and spend and pay taxes accordingly.
To administer the job guarantee, the Levy researchers suggest a Public Service Employment program that utilizes the expansive, already-existing American Job Center Network to match jobseekers with meaningful, living-wage work in their communities. Standards for such jobs would likely be set by the Department of Labor “to serve the public purpose and not compete with private employment. The focus should be on delivering public goods, aimed broadly at three areas: caring for people, caring for the planet, and caring for communities,” Kelton said.
With a ballooning elderly population, and households with two working parents as the norm, there’s no shortage of care work to be done. “Projects bubble up from the bottom. They’re not passed down. Jobs are coming from the local communities who know best what those communities’ needs are,” said Kelton.
“The focus should be on delivering public goods, aimed broadly at three areas: caring for people, caring for the planet, and caring for communities.”
A similar proposal from Darrick Hamilton and economists William Darity and Mark Paul calls for the creation of a National Investment Employment Corps, administered by the Labor Department and overseen by the secretary of labor, who would allocate grants for state, county, and local governments, along with Native American nations. They also envision that the department will work with other federal agencies to identify key investment opportunities in, for example, infrastructure, care work, and job training. “We need to reverse the narrative that government does not do useful things. Governments have done useful things. They currently do useful things,” Hamilton said.
So what would a campaign for a job guarantee look like? As was the case half a century ago, it’s unlikely that even progressive policymakers will come to fully embrace the idea en masse without some kind of outside pressure pushing them to do so — no matter how friendly the polling looks. At the Progressive Congress Strategy Summit recently, Ady Barkan, who was being honored there, sketched out what he thought a campaign for full employment might look like. “We would start asking people what would you do with a trillion dollars. We don’t have to go immediately to the notion that deficits are meaningless, and we just print our way to utopia,” he said.
“We have meetings with people all across the country where they write up their own wish list,” Barkan continued, mapping out a series of public visioning sessions. “They send letters to their members of Congress. They write public manifestos. They hold town halls. And then we would need to start organizing the elected officials to sign on letters saying, ‘I support this wish list.’ We hold conventions. We get local elected officials and celebrities to endorse it. We work toward the Democratic Party platform in the summer of 2020.”
Having grassroots energy behind the job guarantee demand could also help hold politicians accountable to ensuring that their proposals for a federal job guarantee actually live up to the name. Hamilton and Kelton both predicted that — with the revived popularity of the job guarantee idea — some imposters will enter the fray, substituting the idea of a public option for employment with public-private partnerships and subsidies to companies to create more jobs.
Of course, even the most ambitious version of a job guarantee is no panacea for what ails the American economy. As Hamilton points out, such a policy would do little to address gaping wealth inequality, which is particularly harsh along racial lines. He and Darity have done extensive research on other policies that could — including reparations, debt-free higher education, and baby bonds — and he sees them as working in tandem with one another.
Still, a federal job guarantee in the United States wouldn’t exist in a vacuum. The government providing every person with a job marks a stark break from the kind of neoliberal politics that have defined the last half-century, reimagining the role of the state in the economy and the kinds of spending deemed politically and financially viable. By setting a nationwide standard for what good jobs look like, it would also give workers a lot more bargaining power over their bosses. After all, what incentive would you have to put up with a shitty boss if you can go down the street and get a better job from the government?
And in addition to bolstering local and state budgets, a job guarantee could pry open the Overton window for other kinds of ambitious and desperately needed federal investment — and be an unexpected boon to climate campaigners. “You’re not going to get a permission slip from CBO to do something big on climate,” Kelton explained. “Why? Because it won’t pay for itself. That’s dangerous. How are we going to deal with this imminent threat if we have to wait around for the CBO to figure out a model to address climate change so that it doesn’t add to the deficit?”
A little-remembered group called Environmentalists for Full Employment — active in the late 1970s — saw it as a means of opening up new economic opportunities for workers in the extractive industry, especially those living in places where refining and mining jobs were some of the only ones around.
It’s for reasons like this that Barkan and other job guarantee proponents see it as a political gift that keeps on giving. “There’s something for everyone,” he said. “Everybody’s wish list could go into this: You want child care, arts, infrastructure, a green energy revolution? Everything can fit under the notion that the government has the resources, and the American people can provide the labor to rebuild the country. It transforms our political discourse away from a vision of scarcity and precarity and toward one of abundance and dignity, and communal thriving. I’m excited.”