Do We Need a Federal Jobs Guarantee? A Debate.

Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker and Bernie Sanders have all proposed a job guarantee. But would it be drudgery?

Rohan Grey & Raúl Carrillo

Unemployed men march for jobs in New York City on May 31, 1909. (Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

The Case for a Guaranteed Job

By establishing a legal right to work, a JG shifts responsibility for unemployment from individuals to the government.

by Rohan Grey and Raúl Carrillo

Most workers work too much and too hard, only to benefit the idle rich. Thus, we support reducing both working hours and capital’s share of wealth. Yet evidence suggests exclusion from work causes problems beyond the absence of income, including higher mortality and suicide rates, social isolation and a permanent decline in well-being. 

To address these evils, we echo Martin Luther King Jr.’s call for a job to all … who want to … and are able to work,” and an income for [those] not able to work.” Specifically, we support a federally funded, locally driven job guarantee (JG), which, like programs envisioned by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I‑Vt.) and economists at the Levy Economics Institute and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, commits the federal government to guarantee a living wage job with good benefits, including healthcare, to anyone who wants or needs one. Among other benefits, a JG creates a space for work focused on dignity, self-actualization and public purpose, divorced from concerns of profiteers. There is no shortage of meaningful labor, from infrastructure repair to care work to artistic revitalization. Combating climate change alone requires massive public mobilization to transform energy and food production, restore ecosystems, and defend frontline communities. 

Although post-work utopians claim robots are rendering human labor obsolete, the data provide no such evidence. As the Center for Economic and Policy Research notes, productivity growth declined between 2006 and 2015, relative to the decade before. 

With no robot-topia in sight, people must work. A JG reconfigures labor markets in favor of workers. As economist Michal Kalecki argued, ending the threat of unemployment grows the self-assurance and class-consciousness of the working class.” 

Additionally, as Pauli Murray and other civil rights leaders argued, true full employment helps ensure fair employment. Workers trapped in low-wage sectors (disproportionately workers of color) can take JG jobs instead. Workers tired of employers promoting war, incarceration, extraction and deportation can do the same. Meanwhile, workers remaining in the private sector benefit from heightened competition among employers to fill openings. 

A JG can also address other structural inequalities within the labor system. Currently, women perform the majority of care work without formal remuneration. A JG program could assist child- and eldercare professionals, moving familial burdens off the backs of women and into the public sphere, and formalizing and valorizing existing care work. 

We do not think central bankers, currently tasked with steering the macroeconomy, are interested in, nor capable of, truly achieving full employment. Furthermore, we consider traditional stimulus and labor market programs sloppy and inadequate. By establishing a legal right to work, a JG shifts responsibility for unemployment from individuals to the government. 

The struggles for public education and housing are illustrative: Communities that support these goals do not simply try to earmark funds, build infrastructure and hire staff; they commit to meeting the needs of any eligible individual. 

Recognition of a legal right to work is necessary, but, of course, insufficient. Successful rights enforcement requires administrative support from courts and agencies, fiscal support from Congress, and political support from the public. 

Critics contest, first, that jobs suitable for the unemployed are necessarily make-work.” But the Sunrise Movement, an army of young people” supporting a climateoriented JG, argues that many critical, long-term green jobs do not require prior training or skills. 

Second, critics claim that certain work, like construction, can’t employ unskilled” labor. But the Works Progress Administration did exactly that, and we still use those buildings today. 

Third, critics equate a JG with bloated bureaucracy. But we can easily integrate JG jobs into existing nonprofit and government infrastructure. 

Fourth, critics claim a JG is susceptible to fraud and abuse. But that’s true of all public programs, including those, like Social Security, that entail simply” cutting checks. This doesn’t mean we should give up on them. 

Finally, critics claim a JG is punitive workfare by another name. But we simply argue for basic solidarity. We expect those who can work to do so— according to their abilities, in an equitable fashion, to meet everyone’s needs. Economic justice demands more than cash transfers. We must recognize each other as irreducibly social beings, embedded in a complex global system as both consumers and workers.

A Rebuttal

by Matt Bruenig

What exactly is a job guarantee program, according to Raúl and Rohan? We only get the briefest of hints in a single sentence: We support a federally funded, locally driven job guarantee (JG), which, like programs envisioned by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I‑Vt.) and economists at the Levy Economics Institute and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, commits the federal government to guarantee a living wage job with good benefits, including healthcare, to anyone who wants or needs one.”

In addition to its vagueness, the sentence is at odds with itself. The very nascent Sanders plan merely creates a process that local governments can use to get federal funding for local projects. This may or may not be a good idea, but, since it relies on localities’ discretion, it can’t possibly provide a job for every American who wants or needs” one.

The JG program that the Levy Institute and other leading academics have been proposing for decades sets the federal government up as an employer of last resort. The government would fund temporary, minimum-wage jobs — described by Hyman Minsky, the godfather of JG, as make-work” — for those who are presently unemployable in ordinary public and private sector work. The advocates of this view, including Randall Wray, Stephanie Kelton and Pavlina Tcherneva, have said these characteristics are essential if the program is to avoid creating unsustainable inflationary spirals.

The basic problem with the academics’ proposal is that the make-work jobs will not provide meaningful benefits to society. A JG program could not provide child care and elder care because those jobs need to be done on a permanent basis, not merely when the economy is in recession and many people are out of work. 

A JG program could not build infrastructure because construction requires highly skilled workers who make more than the minimum wage. A JG program could not do climate-change work because building sea walls, installing solar panels and just about anything else on this front requires skilled workers who will not work for minimum wage.

If you think it is better to have unemployed people pick up trash and rake leaves rather than receive an unemployment check while they search for a job, then a JG could make sense. Otherwise, you should oppose it, as I do. 

Rohan Grey is a doctoral candidate at Cornell Law School.Raúl Carillo is an attorney fighting for economic justice in New York City.Both are directors of the National Jobs for All Coalition and the Modern Money Network.
More articles by Rohan Grey & Raúl Carrillo
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Do We Need a Federal Jobs Guarantee? A Debate.
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