Should the government guarantee everyone a job?

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

Democratic Rep. Ayanna Pressley last week introduced a proposal to establish a federal job guarantee, a national program that would provide work for every American who wants it.

Under the proposal, the federal government would fund employment opportunities for everyone who could not find work within the private sector. The jobs would be created in “socially necessary and useful” fields including education, health care, emergency preparedness, infrastructure and environmental projects.

The concept of a federal job guarantee has a long history in Democratic politics. Franklin Roosevelt, whose New Deal programs put thousands of Americans to work after the Great Depression, included a right to work in his proposal for a second Bill of Rights. The cause was later taken up by prominent civil rights leaders like Coretta Scott King. Today, a job guarantee is supported by a number of high-profile progressive lawmakers, including Sen. Bernie Sanders and Pressley’s fellow “Squad” members.

Why there’s debate

Supporters of a federal job guarantee say work should be a fundamental right and the private sector is incapable of providing a job to everyone who wants one. Unemployment causes unnecessary personal and societal harm, they argue, that can be erased altogether if all Americans had access to well-paying, high-quality work. Through a job guarantee, the government can take on desperately needed initiatives — like green energy and elder care — without having to consider the profit incentives that often hold back private industry’s ability to address these problems.

A job guarantee would also have a positive impact on private employment, supporters say. In order to compete with government jobs that provide a living wage and benefits, companies would have to pay their own employees more, they argue.

Opponents say that pressure on private companies is one of the biggest downsides of a job guarantee. Many employers would struggle to stay afloat if their labor costs increase, and those who don’t raise wages would have a hard time finding employees. Others say the price tag of a job guarantee — which could run more than $500 billion a year — is too high and would only become less feasible during recessions when tax revenues would decline just as the number of people relying on government jobs would go up.

There are also concerns that a job guarantee would be less effective at combating poverty and inequality than other programs, such as universal basic income or job training programs. Some research suggests that many people could become stuck in government jobs and have a difficult time transitioning to the private workforce.

What’s next

Though the idea has gained momentum over the past few years, there doesn’t appear to be nearly enough political support to make a job guarantee a reality. A proposal to establish a job guarantee pilot program in 15 cities introduced by Sen. Cory Booker failed to make it through Congress in both 2018 and 2019. During the campaign, President Biden said the U.S. may need a job guarantee “down the line” but “we are not there” yet.



Government jobs can tackle critical work the private companies won’t

“Even given the massive unemployment out there, there is a tremendous amount of work that we need to do. So let’s put the people who need work together with the jobs that need to be done. And really, only publicly funded jobs at massive scale are able to solve this big public problem.” — Roosevelt Institute president Felicia Wong to “Marketplace”

Any level of unemployment is unacceptable

“We don’t think of a ‘natural rate’ of illiteracy — we don’t say 5% of children should be illiterate,” she says. “But we say 5% of the labor force will be without a job at any given point in time, and that’s ‘natural.’ But there’s nothing natural about it. The public sector is still responsible for the unemployed in society. Unemployment brings unconscionable costs from people and their families. It’s costly. There’s a better way.” — Economist Pavlina Tcherneva to Fast Company

High-quality government jobs would force private employers to treat their workers better

“Employment through the job guarantee would provide a base wage of $15/hour and benefits like health insurance, childcare, and paid leave. This would establish a de facto minimum standard for all employers to meet. Private firms would recognize that if they didn’t improve conditions their workers could always get a better paying job through the federal job program.” — Paul Prescod, Jacobin

Jobs create value in a way other government anti-poverty programs don’t

“Unlike other left-wing policy proposals like universal basic income, a jobs guarantee involves production instead of simple transfer of resources. In plain English, participants in the program would be providing goods or services we as a society think are being under-supplied, such as infrastructure improvements, childcare, or healthcare.” — George Pearkes, Business Insider

Government jobs can tackle critical work the private companies won’t

“Were we to rely exclusively on the profit motive, we’d leave undone things like national defense, educating the poor, caring for the infirm, combating climate change, police and fire protection, lawmaking, disaster response, etc, etc. And yet these are essential for a civilized society and they underpin our ability to actually carry out the market jobs. And they are what the job guarantee would create.” — John T. Harvey, Forbes

A job guarantee would be more impactful than coronavirus stimulus

“Unlike the stimulus ideas that have dominated Washington to date, a direct government hiring initiative would address inequality; build robust capacity in public health, conservation, education, and infrastructure; and provide not just stable jobs, but government capacity to meet the current pandemic and economic crisis as well as the next one.” — Daniel Carpenter and Darrick Hamilton, Slate


Businesses would go under if they had to compete with the government for workers

“Because government does not need to worry about profits or operating efficiently, and because it often runs huge deficits, it has a large advantage over every business in the private sector, making it incredibly difficult for private companies to compete. That means job guarantees distort markets and drive employees out of productive businesses and into government jobs that might not even be needed.” — Justin Haskins, Fox News

Workers wouldn’t learn valuable skills and would struggle to find private-sector jobs

“Research has found that public-sector-employment programs teach few skills, leading to minimal or negative effects for employees. Once people enter the program, they might never be able to find a way to leave, and the rolls of participants would grow inexorably year after year.” — Charles Hughes, National Review

More limited jobs programs for the neediest workers are more effective

“When subsidised jobs schemes are scaled up to offer jobs to everyone who is unemployed, their costs increase and their quality and their impact on future employability diminish.” — Peter Davidson, The Conversation

The cost of federal job programs could quickly spiral out of control

“Since the most popular job guarantee plans would offer relatively solid wages and benefits ($15 an hour plus benefits), they would probably draw applicants who currently have jobs with stingier compensation. If that happened, as you’d expect, the cost of the program might balloon up to several times over. Once you start financing the program with taxes on the middle class — which would probably be necessary given the scale of its cost — then the popularity would drop off precipitously.” — Jonathan Chait, New York

Programs to encourage private-sector work are better

“A better idea is to use private-sector employment subsidies to encourage companies to hire more unemployed and underemployed workers. ... Additionally, a combination of wage subsidies, minimum wages and increased worker bargaining power could help private-sector workers capture a bigger share of the value they create.” — Noah Smith, Bloomberg

A job guarantee would hurt the economy

“The federal job guarantee would do even greater harm to the overall labor market. Temporarily unemployed workers, along with millions of low-paid workers, would be diverted into a complex bureaucracy with no mechanism or incentive to put the workers’ skills and time to their best use. This could greatly weaken the productivity of the overall economy, leading to a decline in output and further job losses.” — Max Gulker, Wall Street Journal

A job guarantee wouldn’t solve problems that keep many out of the workforce

“In practice, many people who are not working but say they want a job have problems that make them hard to employ, such as unstable housing, substance abuse, criminal records, and mental health conditions that fall short of full disability.” — Ed Dolan, Salon

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