For that kind of money, the government would pull millions of families out of poverty, proponents of guaranteed-jobs programs argue. It would push up the wages of workers with private-sector jobs by creating a hotter labor market overall. It would address income stagnation and the decline of the middle class. It would improve and expand public services. Rural America would get a boost, and the government would have a strong standing measure to counter recessions and end long-term unemployment.
Of course, there might be less salutary effects as well, and the CAP proposal leaves a number of questions unanswered. For example, the report suggests turning the current pool of unemployed, displaced, and discouraged workers into teachers’ aides, EMTs, and elder-care assistants. But those are jobs that require a considerable amount of training and skill, and are generally long-term careers rather than temporary gigs. They might not be the right ones for a public-jobs program aimed at disaffected workers, in other words. Moreover, those would not be easy job categories to expand in the event of a recession. Demand for health-, elder-, and child-care workers is mostly based on the country’s demography, after all, and again, those jobs require training. Supplying streets with crossing guards, cleaning up highways and national parks: Those more menial tasks might be better suited for a public jobs program, but are not mentioned.
On top of that, the report seems to underestimate the cost of overhead and infrastructure—the program would need to be physically present in every zip code of this vast country, and the Washington has not run anything like this since the Great Depression. The fact that most government-sponsored worker-retraining programs perform abysmally goes unmentioned, too.
The money might be better spent on a combination of targeted help for the long-term jobless, targeted help for distressed communities, targeted help for displaced workers, and targeted help to connect young people to the labor force, along with policies like infrastructure investment and expanded labor protections. But the report does not break out an estimated dollar-for-dollar impact of a jobs guarantee, or competing proposals. Moreover, it does not discuss how a jobs guarantee might change the Federal Reserve’s mandate to seek maximum employment along with price stability. (One question: Would the Fed allow higher interest rates that would cool off private-employment growth in a world with a jobs guarantee?)
But rather than critique the idea’s policy merits, perhaps it makes more sense to look at the CAP proposal in political terms: another sign that Democrats are moving to the left, not the center, and thinking big, not small. Proposals like a jobs guarantee, Representative Ro Khanna’s $1 trillion expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit, and the increasingly popular universal basic income might appeal not just to the Bernie Sanders left, but also to Trump voters who felt abandoned and unmoored during the Obama years, the thinking goes. The rise of populist movements and the shrinking of the middle class—with all the economic pain and political turbulence that comes with that—seems to have increased the appetite of both parties for dramatic proposals.