Yes, a Jobs Guarantee Could Create “Boondoggles.” It Also Might Save the Planet.

Kate Aronoff May 1, 2018

A job guarantee—properly formulated—could give workers another option and help redefine what valuable, productive work looks like. (Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images)

In recent weeks, talk of a fed­er­al job guar­an­tee has swept into the nation­al polit­i­cal debate. Pos­si­ble 2020 pres­i­den­tial hope­fuls Sens. Kris­ten Gilli­brand (D‑N.Y.) and Cory Book­er (D‑N.J.) have both expressed their sup­port for the idea, and Book­er recent­ly intro­duced leg­is­la­tion to cre­ate a job guar­an­tee pilot pro­gram. And after Sen. Bernie Sanders (I‑Vt.) announced his team was com­pil­ing a job guar­an­tee pro­pos­al, opin­ions abound­ed from the left, right and cen­ter.

The Nation­al Review calls a job guar­an­tee a social­ist plot liable to bank­rupt the coun­try. Kevin Drum at Moth­er Jones adopt­ed a sim­i­lar line, chid­ing the idea of a job guar­an­tee as insane” and liable to cost a for­tune.” Denounc­ing the pro­gram as work­fare”, com­pa­ra­ble to Vic­to­ri­an poor­hous­es, left-wing writer Matt Bru­enig asks — fair­ly — what are these jobs actu­al­ly going to be like? What does actu­al­ly fit all the con­straints of workfare?

Despite claims to the con­trary, you will not be build­ing bridges out of a job guar­an­tee office,” Bru­enig writes, You will not be doing child care out of a job guar­an­tee office… All of these tasks require either high lev­els of skill, large amounts of cap­i­tal, or per­ma­nence of ser­vice, none of which meet the con­straints that a work­fare pro­gram has to deal with.”

I’ll let the pro­pos­als—one from the Levy Eco­nom­ics Insti­tute and anoth­er com­mis­sioned by the Cen­ter for Bud­get and Pol­i­cy Pri­or­i­ties — speak for them­selves on this front, and I recent­ly spoke with authors of each for The Inter­cept if you want a longer look at the details. In brief, nei­ther of these pro­pos­als urge cuts to exist­ing safe­ty net ben­e­fits, nor do they make get­ting things like SNAP assis­tance (“food stamps”) depen­dent on whether some­one is employed in a job guar­an­tee project.

Levy econ­o­mist Pavli­na Tch­erne­va, a long­time researcher and pro­po­nent of the job guar­an­tee, has also pub­lished an exten­sive Q & A address­ing sev­er­al com­mon­ly asked ques­tions, as well as a work­ing paper that gets into the weeds of its design and imple­men­ta­tion. (For what it’s worth, the large­ly sim­pati­co Levy and CBPP papers adopt slight­ly dif­fer­ent posi­tions on the ques­tion of what kinds of jobs would be created.)

But Breunig’s com­plaint elides with a broad­er one voiced by the Right — that the kinds of jobs a job guar­an­tee would cre­ate are essen­tial­ly use­less activ­i­ties, and there sim­ply aren’t enough shov­el-ready” projects to fun­nel peo­ple into mean­ing­ful work. Lib­er­tar­i­an writer Meghan McAr­dle, for instance, argues in the Wash­ing­ton Post that the gov­ern­ment doesn’t much use many of the skills that low-wage work­ers have, such as bar­tend­ing or short-order cook­ing. And it doesn’t have much pres­ence in areas that employ a lot of low-skilled, undif­fer­en­ti­at­ed labor: retail, fast food, call centers.

Even in cat­e­gories where the gov­ern­ment does have needs, those needs are lim­it­ed,” she adds. The fed­er­al gov­ern­ment might well be able to use more home health-care aides, day-care work­ers and clerks. It prob­a­bly can­not use 25 mil­lion of them.”

The approach to this chal­lenge from some on the left con­tends that, rather than pro­vid­ing pover­ty relief through so-called make-work” activ­i­ties — pick­ing up trash, clean­ing pub­lic restrooms, etc. — the gov­ern­ment should just give peo­ple mon­ey direct­ly, or pass active labor mar­ket poli­cies that incen­tivize the pri­vate sec­tor to hire more peo­ple. The right-wing and lib­er­tar­i­an ver­sions of this argu­ment tend to hold that any tru­ly valu­able work would already have already been cre­at­ed by the omni­scient pow­er of the free market.

These aren’t new argu­ments. As Franklin D. Roosevelt’s admin­is­tra­tion was rolling out its alpha­bet soup of jobs and relief projects in the wake of the Great Depres­sion, polit­i­cal oppo­nents decried sev­er­al of the projects under the Fed­er­al Emer­gency Relief Admin­is­tra­tion (FERA) and Works Progress Admin­is­tra­tion (WPA) as boon­dog­gles” — wastes of time, mon­ey and effort, and evi­dence that the gov­ern­ment should stay out of the busi­ness of putting peo­ple to work.

Attract­ing par­tic­u­lar ire were jobs appor­tioned out to white col­lar work­ers, a less-remem­bered part of the Depres­sion-era New Deal projects than the men who built giant dams and high­way repairs. As Nick Tay­lor details in Amer­i­can Made: The Endur­ing Lega­cy of the WPA, a his­to­ry of New Deal jobs pro­grams, FERA fund­ed a num­ber of research projects at New York City uni­ver­si­ties, includ­ing the com­pi­la­tion of a stan­dard Jew­ish ency­clo­pe­dia, a study of the mak­ing of safe­ty pins, and soci­o­log­i­cal inves­ti­ga­tions into mat­ters such as the non-pro­fes­sion­al inter­ests of nurs­ery school, kinder­garten, and first-grade teach­ers, and The Task of Edu­ca­tion Pub­lic Opin­ion Relat­ing to Socio-Eco­nom­ic Projects.’”

Lloyd Paul Stryk­er, a crim­i­nal attor­ney over­see­ing hear­ings for New York City-area FERA projects, called them, High-spun the­o­ret­i­cal bunk.” Oth­er crit­ics brought up dog shel­ters, out­door exer­cise run­ways, elab­o­rate build­ing facades and ski lodges as exam­ples of gov­ern­ment excess.

In response to these jabs, Roo­sevelt quipped that, If we can boon­dog­gle our way out of this Depres­sion, that word is going to be enshrined in the hearts of the peo­ple for years to come.”

Har­ry Hop­kins — the man respon­si­ble for devel­op­ing and imple­ment­ing many of the New Deal jobs pro­grams — was more fiery: They are damn good projects — excel­lent projects. That goes for all the projects up there. You know some peo­ple make fun of peo­ple who speak a for­eign lan­guage, and dumb peo­ple crit­i­cize some­thing they do not under­stand, and that is what is going on up there — God damn it!”

Sup­port­ers of any job guar­an­tee being con­sid­ered in 2018 should be just as indig­nant as Hop­kins. There are bridges to be built and roads to be repaired — the kinds of things that prob­a­bly come to mind when most Amer­i­cans think of pub­lic works pro­grams. And there undoubt­ed­ly are details to be worked out amidst the var­i­ous pro­pos­als being con­sid­ered for how to bal­ance build­ing trades’ project labor agree­ments on major infra­struc­ture projects and find work­ers able to do jobs requir­ing spe­cif­ic qualifications.

But as Johan­na Bozuwa points out for The Next Sys­tem Project, there are hun­dreds of thou­sands, if not mil­lions, of shov­el-ready jobs around the coun­try that can help mit­i­gate cli­mate change and pre­pare for the lev­els of warm­ing already locked in, be it reme­di­at­ing wet­lands to make coastal cities more flood-resilient, cre­at­ing green spaces to alle­vi­ate the urban heat island effect or reclaim­ing vul­ner­a­ble shore­lines for out­door recre­ation instead of con­do devel­op­ment — a kind of mod­ern Civil­ian Con­ser­va­tion Corps — in cities and rur­al areas alike.

And the sorts of projects derid­ed dur­ing the New Deal as boon­dog­gles should be firm­ly on the table too. From coastal reme­di­a­tion to oral his­to­ry projects to avant-garde the­ater, there’s plen­ty of valu­able and low-car­bon work to be done that sim­ply isn’t val­ued by the pri­vate sec­tor. It’s hard to imag­ine any com­pa­ny, for instance, being able to make a prof­it off of build­ing play­grounds or keep­ing elder­ly peo­ple com­pa­ny to help ward off lone­li­ness, which has been linked in sev­er­al stud­ies to pre­ma­ture death. A forty-plus year neolib­er­al assault on the pub­lic sphere has also drained any fund­ing that ever did exist for these sorts of out­side-the-box initiatives.

What feeds a prof­it mar­gin and what makes for a good soci­ety don’t often over­lap. News­rooms are hem­or­rhag­ing staff posi­tions and being gob­bled up by hedge funds, if not shut­tered alto­geth­er, as online out­lets com­pete for clicks. Cor­po­ra­tions are churn­ing out cheap, car­bon-inten­sive junk and sell­ing it through poor­ly-paid ser­vice sec­tor jobs at places like McDon­alds and Wal-Mart, the largest employ­er in 22 states. Econ­o­mists tend to treat these types of jobs as sta­tis­tics, and even some cen­ter-left crit­ics of the job guar­an­tee don’t ful­ly account for how drain­ing pri­vate sec­tor, low-wage work can be.

Through pay­ing a liv­ing wage and offer­ing robust ben­e­fits, a job guar­an­tee — prop­er­ly for­mu­lat­ed — could give work­ers anoth­er option and help rede­fine what valu­able, pro­duc­tive work looks like. It could also revi­tal­ize the pub­lic sphere in the process, pro­vid­ing funds and peo­ple pow­er to help build a coun­try where peo­ple are not only bet­ter paid but happier.

Among the biggest tar­gets of WPA crit­ics was the fed­er­al the­ater pro­gram, in no small part because the arts were a haven for left­ists and the pro­gram was found­ed as a free, adult, uncen­sored” the­ater. It was cer­tain­ly true,” Tay­lor writes, that fire­brand arts work­ers, par­tic­u­lar­ly in New York and San Fran­cis­co, had spent as much time in protests and rad­i­cal activ­i­ties as they had in mak­ing art.” And while some of the Fed­er­al The­ater Project’s pro­duc­tions were polit­i­cal, many of them weren’t — the pro­gram also put on clown shows for chil­dren and staged inno­v­a­tive adap­ta­tions of Shake­speare­an dra­mas around the country.

The Fed­er­al Art Project attract­ed sim­i­lar dis­dain from con­ser­v­a­tives, putting sculp­tors, mural­ists and poster artists to work dec­o­rat­ing fed­er­al build­ings via the Civ­il Works Admin­is­tra­tion. The Fed­er­al Writ­ers Project (FWP) wrote trav­el guides for U.S. states and ter­ri­to­ries and record­ed an exten­sive cat­a­logue of oral his­to­ries from for­mer slaves, com­pil­ing some 2,000 inter­views and 500 pho­tographs between 1936 and 1938. The House Com­mit­tee on Un-Amer­i­can Activ­i­ties (HUAC) called the FWP a fes­ter­ing sore of com­mu­nism,” and took par­tic­u­lar aim at the head of the pro­gram, not­ed red” Hen­ry Alsberg.

To the cha­grin of their crit­ics, Als­berg and oth­er New Deal admin­is­tra­tors didn’t have much trou­ble putting peo­ple to work, whether in build­ing nature trails or pub­lish­ing books. Yet, cast­ing doubt on job guar­an­tee pro­pos­als in New York, Jonathan Chait argues that a jobs pro­gram today wouldn’t enjoy the same lux­u­ry. In both the pri­vate and pub­lic sec­tor, jobs are designed with an out­put in mind, with employ­ing peo­ple a by-prod­uct,” he writes, adding that, 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. And this task would be under­tak­en, even with a sev­er­al year ramp-up, on a mas­sive scale.”

Chait is half-right and half-wrong here. Cre­at­ing a fed­er­al job guar­an­tee would be a major bureau­crat­ic chal­lenge, requir­ing gov­ern­ment at near­ly every lev­el to cre­ate the types of jobs that nei­ther the pub­lic or pri­vate sec­tor have for gen­er­a­tions. What he’s wrong about is the fact that this task is some­how avoid­able. Hav­ing an econ­o­my which revolves root to branch around tox­ic sup­ply chains — from extract­ing fos­sil fuels to mak­ing bil­lions of cheap wid­gets with them — is deeply unsus­tain­able. By no means does a job guar­an­tee resolve the myr­i­ad sup­ply and demand-side pol­i­cy chal­lenges posed by cli­mate change, but it could go a long way toward rethink­ing what it is that an econ­o­my is sup­posed to produce.

Decar­boniz­ing the econ­o­my along the time­line physics demands isn’t just a mat­ter of hoist­ing up enough wind tur­bines, build­ing oth­er green infra­struc­ture and installing solar pan­els en masse, but about mak­ing fun­da­men­tal­ly low-car­bon work — the kind not depen­dent on things like petro­le­um-cre­at­ed plas­tics (Wal-Mart) or indus­tri­al meat pro­duc­tion (fast food) — the norm for work­ers at all skill lev­els. Ide­al­ly that won’t be a world where those look­ing for work are just pick­ing up trash or man­u­fac­tur­ing zero-car­bon junk, but where more peo­ple can act in plays and build play­grounds and, in turn, have more time to see plays and take their kids to playgrounds.

That the lead­ing job guar­an­tee pro­pos­als out­line pro­grams where projects are local­ly designed and admin­is­tered — in line with fed­er­al­ly agreed-upon stan­dards — means that com­mu­ni­ties could decide which projects make sense for them. No one will be forced to take a job, let alone one they don’t want. If they do, they can do work that their neigh­bors have col­lec­tive­ly decid­ed is impor­tant, and may well be more ful­fill­ing than the kinds of low-wage, car­bon-inten­sive retail and fast food jobs that, for many, are often the only ones on offer.

In oth­er words, the trade-off Chait pro­pos­es is most­ly false, or at the very least not the most press­ing one we should be look­ing to answer. The ques­tion isn’t whether jobs are a means to an end or the end in itself, but how to put mil­lions of peo­ple to work in a way that isn’t destroy­ing the plan­et, as the out­puts of cap­i­tal­ist pro­duc­tion so often do.

Boon­dog­gles, in such a con­text, might just save the planet.

Kate Aronoff is a Brook­lyn-based jour­nal­ist cov­er­ing cli­mate and U.S. pol­i­tics, and a con­tribut­ing writer at The Inter­cept. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @katearonoff.
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH