Should the federal government provide jobs to those who want one?

Millions of Americans are still struggling to find work during the pandemic. But one idea gaining traction among some lawmakers and economists is for the federal government to provide jobs. New York Times economics reporter Eduardo Porter joined CBSN's Lana Zak to discuss the potential measure, which was previously implemented during the Great Depression.

Video Transcript

LANA ZAK: Millions of Americans are still struggling to find work during the pandemic. But one idea gaining traction among some lawmakers and economists is for the federal government to provide jobs. According to a recent article from "The New York Times," a Gallup survey from November found 93% of Americans supported this idea. Most people said that they would also prefer government jobs over unemployment benefits.

Eduardo Porter is an economics reporter for "The New York Times." He wrote that article, and he joins me now for more. Eduardo, good to have you. So a policy like this was really last seen during Roosevelt's New Deal in the 1930s. How would something like a jobs works program actually take place today compared to how the policy was used during the Great Depression?

EDUARDO PORTER: We're in a extremely different moment than we were back in the 1930s. The-- the federal jobs programs that were put in place as part of the New Deal were meant to pull employment out of a deep and prolonged hole, which is really not the same situation that we are in today. Joblessness did increase massively starting in April last year. But the expectation of most economists is that jobs are going to come back much more quickly than they did in the 1930s as we deal with the pandemic through vaccinations and so forth, and the economy comes back on stream.

So right now when you hear people talking about this idea of a federal-guaranteed job, I think they're thinking more in terms of a tool to ensure good quality jobs for most Americans, you know, the federal government setting sort of a standard, a minimum standard of what work should be like and so that every American has a chance to get that kind of job. It's not necessarily a tool to achieve full employment, you know, to-- to bring us out of the unemployment hole, but more a tool to guarantee, over time, you know, over long periods of time, high-quality employment for everybody.

LANA ZAK: Eduardo, I want to talk to you more about the minimum standards that you're mentioning. But even before we get into that, just talking feasibility, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker introduced legislation back in 2018 and 2019 that would have provided training and jobs to Americans as part of pilot programs at the expense of the federal government. Those efforts, however, failed. So how likely could we see something like this actually pass in 2021?

EDUARDO PORTER: Yeah, and just to step forward, again, Ayanna Pressley submitted a bill for a federal jobs guarantee just this week. So evidently, in parts of the Democratic party, there is enormous enthusiasm for this kind of idea. I frankly don't think it has much of a chance. What drew me to write about it was that we're getting much more attention to this idea that's extremely unorthodox after an idea that hasn't been around for many, many decades. But I don't really think that it has much of a chance of becoming law.

In fact, if you look at what-- what President Biden's people are proposing is not really anywhere near a federal job guarantee. They're proposing, you know, putting a lot of money into things like new energy investments, child care, elder care, health care, and stuff like that. And that will produce jobs and presumably-- and the government will also kind of like try to guarantee that those are good jobs by setting minimum standards and so forth. But I don't really think that the idea of a federal guarantee job at, whatever, $15 an hour with health insurance for every American that wants one is anywhere near a potential reality.

LANA ZAK: So let's-- let's discuss a little bit deeper the minimum standards. In your reporting, one expert that you spoke with said that the government intervening in the labor market would set these minimum standards for work. Let's describe for our viewers who might not be-- who might not be familiar with that terminology what exactly that means and the impact that this policy would then have on private employers and how they compensate their employees.

EDUARDO PORTER: Yeah. Well, think about it. You know, if there's a government-guaranteed job out there at 15 bucks an hour with health care, would you take a job for anything less? Probably not. So you know, this would immediately give an outside option to every worker in a low-wage occupation and hence the thinking goes, the many economists that are positives about this, that, you know, this would kind of like induce private employers to raise the standards of their own jobs, to raise their wages, to provide better benefits and perhaps better working conditions to kind of match at least what the federal government would be offering.

Now, what critics of these kinds of ideas will argue that is, well, yeah, you're basically going to destroy a large share of the labor market because there is a really substantial chunk of the labor market that operates at a lower standard than that. Think of, you know, low-end retail, you know, fast food. There's enormous chunks of the service economy that-- that might not meet the standard.

What will they do? You know, where will McDonald's find workers? And do we-- do we care that suddenly McDonald's needs to vastly improved its wages and working conditions in order to keep its workforce? What would that mean for the entire labor market? Those are the unique questions that-- that rise in the face of this proposition.

LANA ZAK: It's interesting some of the same issues that we're hearing debated particularly when it just comes to the question of raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

EDUARDO PORTER: I think so, too.

LANA ZAK: All right. Eduardo Porter, thank you.

EDUARDO PORTER: Thank you very much.