Should the government guarantee everyone a job at a living wage? The idea is gaining momentum among progressives. By 2020, it may join Medicare for All, debt-free college, a $15 minimum wage, antitrust revival and Social Security expansion as part of a bold reform agenda that Democratic presidential aspirants will have to embrace or debate.
A Good Jobs Guarantee would be a federally funded, locally administered program. Municipalities and towns, linked with nonprofits, would create community job banks that would organize real jobs with good pay and benefits. By addressing needs largely ignored by private markets, the program would avoid competition with private business. By paying a living wage — most plans call for a minimum of $11 to $15 an hour with benefits — the jobs guarantee would lift the floor under workers, insuring that no one works full-time and remains in poverty.
Calls for a job guarantee have deep roots in the Democratic Party. In 1944, coming out of the Great Depression and still entrenched in World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt called for an Economic Bill of Rights , with the right to a job and living wage the first two principles. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. picked up that charge, understanding that economic justice was an essential challenge of the civil rights movement. After King’s assassination, his widow, Coretta Scott King helped build the public pressure that culminated in 1978 with the passage of the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act, a bill that was diluted in its final passage to make full employment a goal rather than a guarantee.
The guarantee is needed today because this economy doesn’t work for working people. Wages of the middle 60 percent of workers have essentially stagnated through this century. The Economic Policy Institute reported that more than one in four workers labors at poverty-level wages. What is worse, entrenched discrimination condemns African Americans to nearly twice the unemployment levels as whites.
Wage stagnation and unemployment have worsened spreading epidemics of despair — opioid and other drug addiction, spousal and child abuse, physical and mental illness, suicide, divorce — that have produced a decline in American life expectancy. Trump may boast about top-line unemployment being near record lows, but nothing in his agenda will redress this harsh reality.
A central cause is that the United States has an explicit policy that condemns a percentage of the population to unemployment as a way to manage the business cycle. Currently, the Federal Reserve, concerned about the possibility of inflation not yet apparent, is raising interest rates to slow the economy and keep more people out of work. This is combined with the imbalance in power between workers and employers, as corporations use globalization, monopoly power and assaults on labor unions to roll back wages and benefits.
A good job guarantee stabilizes the business cycle not with a pool of unemployed workers, but with a pool of workers publicly employed at a living wage. The number expands when the private economy goes into recession, countering the downturn. It will decrease when the private economy grows, while preserving a floor for wages and conditions. They can be flexible to meet local needs. They can be supplemented with training programs to provide useful skills.
Finding good work won’t be a problem. Rebuilding crumbling roads, bridges and other parts of our infrastructure tops the list. Cities could use the program to clean up abandoned lots, rebuild parks, plant trees, arrest soil erosion and more. Essential care for the most vulnerable — elder care, after-school programs, support for new mothers and veterans and at-risk children — could finally be addressed.
A study released by the Levy Institute suggests that initially, the Good Jobs Guarantee would need to employ anywhere between 11 million and 16 million workers. That might cost in total about 1.3 percent to 2.4 percent of GDP. Much of the cost would be paid by savings from the costs of unemployment — unemployment insurance, food stamps, mass incarceration, opioid and drug treatment and policing and more. More would be covered by the increased growth and productivity that would be a direct result of lifting the floor under workers. And with inequality reaching new heights, reversal of the Republican tax cuts on corporations and the rich, plus a sensible estate tax to address the threat of oligarchic dynasties would more than pay the tab.
The discussion of a guarantee has just begun. In addition to the Levy Institute, other think tanks like the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities and the Center for American Progress have also outlined different versions of a jobs guarantee. Policy analysts are now beginning to publish more comprehensive views. Polls reveal the concept already has remarkable popular support. The Congressional Progressive Caucus is likely to put together model legislation and basic principles. The progressive energy coming out of the 2016 election will push town meetings, study groups, and city council resolutions. Don’t be surprised if by 2020, a Good Job Guarantee is a centerpiece of one or more Democratic Party presidential hopefuls.