A Promise So Big, Democrats Aren’t Sure How to Keep It

Progressives are lining up behind a jobs guarantee—but leaving the details for later.

Keith Murray and Jawan Thompson of RecycleForce (Eric Learned / Alexandre Godreau / Remi Jacquaint / unsplash / Katie Martin / The Atlantic)

Jawan Thompson still sounds incredulous at his luck: He has a job, and a good job.

“My first time being incarcerated, I was 15 years old,” he said. “Since then, I’ve been incarcerated maybe four or five times—you know, getting out, being around bad influences and not making positive choices.” After he was released from his latest spell inside a few months ago—his charges over the years have included armed robbery, burglary, and drug dealing—a community corrections officer told him that there was a program that would help him out with a paying gig. “I was like, ‘Nah, it’s too good to be true.’ There’s not too many places that want to hire people like me, especially not younger people.”

In Indianapolis, there was one. RecycleForce takes IT equipment, retail electronics, and medical devices and breaks them down for safe recycling and disposal. The nonprofit’s workforce is largely made up of individuals who used to be incarcerated, their wages subsidized by the taxpayer. In effect, Uncle Sam got Thompson a $9-an-hour job. And if Democrats on the Hill have their way, Uncle Sam will, in the coming years, get a job for anyone who wants and needs one, anywhere in the country, for any reason.

This radical idea is called a jobs guarantee, and Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Cory Booker of New Jersey have in the past few weeks come out in support of it. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, another 2020 presidential aspirant, stands behind the idea too. Representative Ro Khanna, who represents much of Silicon Valley, has legislation providing a government jobs guarantee forthcoming in the House, he told The Atlantic. The most powerful think tanks on the left—including the wonkish Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the politically attuned Center for American Progress, and the progressive Levy Economics Institute of Bard College—have published jobs-guarantee policies or are planning to do so. A blue-sky policy idea has become an animating policy mandate in a matter of months.

The impulse is a radical one, with policymakers spurred to action by the incremental progress of the Obama years, the polarization and obstinacy of the right, the shock election of Donald Trump, the leftward ideological march of younger voters, and the decades of economic stagnation afflicting lower-income voters. “We have been a society, for generations, that has had this fundamental belief that if you’re willing to work hard, if you’re willing to put in the grit and the struggle, you should be able to thrive and make it in America,” Booker told me. “When you have the kind of societal abundance that we have, if you’re willing to work, you should have a shot at economic stability and the American dream. We do not believe we should leave people behind to the ravages of unemployment and poverty.”

But guaranteeing every American a job means guaranteeing every American a job. It means countering the job losses caused by recessions and automation and globalization one-to-one. It means finding work for people in every town in half a continent. It means accommodating the homeless, the violent, the drug addicted, and the illiterate in the workforce. It means expanding the Department of Labor to become something like the size of the Department of Defense, and yet bigger during a downturn. It is a trillion-dollar logistical puzzle, wrapped in a politically fraught stimulus effort, inside an experimental economic enigma. And none of these proposals quite know how to solve it.

The idea of the government providing a job for unemployed citizens is not a new one—indeed, it is a very old one, a way for governments both to support and discipline the poor. England first offered jobs to the unemployed half a millennium ago, during the reign of Elizabeth I, as feudalism was giving way to mercantilism and thousands of serfs found themselves impoverished and jobless. Workhouses for the poor were established in the colonies, and thus predate the United States itself. Today, the Indian government operates a sprawling program that promises public jobs for the poor in rural areas, and there are numerous “workfare” and transitional jobs initiatives that operate in other middle-income and high-income countries, including in the United States. (Noncapitalist economies, of course, have promised to provide universal public employment, with varying degrees of success.)

Since the advent of Keynesian economics, countries have also had the government provide jobs to unemployed citizens as a form of stimulus, with the United States turning to both subsidized private-job programs and expansions of the public-sector workforce during downturns. The Works Progress Administration, created during the depths of the Great Depression, put 8.5 million Americans to work, erecting more than 600,000 miles of new roads, building 100,000 bridges and viaducts, and constructing 35,000 buildings, along with a number of murals, zoos, tennis courts, theaters, dormitories, and ski jumps. The Nixon-era Comprehensive Employment and Training Act provided jobs to the unemployed during the stagflationary years of the 1970s (though local governments ended up siphoning funds to cover their payrolls). And during the Great Recession, a little-known but wildly effective initiative called the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Emergency Fund, or TANF-EF, gave money to the states to subsidize hundreds of thousands of positions, and fast, while the government also expanded infrastructure investment to soak up laid-off construction workers.

Nor is the idea that the American government should guarantee jobs for all its citizens a new one, with historians tracing its intellectual lineage back more than a century. In the 1930s, the populist politician Huey Long argued for the creation of a “Share Our Wealth Society,” to redress yawning inequality of the Gilded Age and to revitalize the Depression-era economy. “You get everybody employed,” he said in a radio address. “To do all of this, our taxation is going [to] take the billion-dollar fortunes and strip them down to frying size.” George McGovern, Martin Luther King Jr., and Franklin Delano Roosevelt also called for a jobs guarantee, and thus for the end of unemployment. “We have come to a clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence,” FDR said in a 1944 address calling for a second Bill of Rights, including “the right to a useful and remunerative job.” Members of Congress even tried to push through a legislative jobs guarantee as part of the Carter-era Humphrey-Hawkins Act, though the effort got watered down.

Animated by concern over many of the same social ills that animated Roosevelt, King, and Long—income inequality, racial inequity, the pain of recessions, and persistent poverty—today’s job-guarantee proposals would provide the unemployed with either a subsidized, private-sector job or a public-sector job. Booker has supported the idea of starting with pilot projects; Sanders focuses on public works; Khanna’s legislation goes for a subsidized-employment program; the Levy Institute and a proposal published by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities suggest direct, on-demand, public employment at a good wage with good benefits. Still, in all the proposals, the general idea is that workers would be able to walk into a local employment office unemployed and walk out employed.

The implications are mind-bending. Unemployment and its miserable sequelae would be consigned to the past. So too would recessions, with the government creating a job for every worker squeezed out of the private sector during a downturn. So too would much of the country’s poverty, including its abhorrent deep poverty. “The two great failures of our economy are the failure to provide full employment and the arbitrary and inequitable distribution of income,” said Stephanie Kelton of Stony Brook University, the former chief economist for Sanders’s budget committee and a co-author of one of the new guaranteed-jobs proposals. “No capitalist economy has solved this problem of buffering employment over the business cycle. That’s what this is designed to do.” She estimated that a guarantee would not only provide millions of public-sector jobs, but would spur the creation of 4 million private-sector jobs, all while boosting GDP growth.

The biggest benefits, its proponents argue, would rebound to society’s poorest and most marginalized—among them individuals with a criminal record, mental-health problems, disabilities, and literacy challenges, all of which are powerful barriers to getting and keeping a job. Beyond that, the program might be a powerful tool to correct racial inequalities. The unemployment rate for black workers currently sits at 6.9 percent, versus 3.6 percent for white workers. Getting a college or a graduate degree does nothing to level these numbers out. That helps to foster a racial earnings gap and to fuel the pernicious, generation-spanning racial wealth gap, with black families with an employed head of household poorer, on average, than white families with a jobless one. A jobs guarantee would drive down black workers’ rates of unemployment, both in absolute terms and relative to white workers, Darrick Hamilton, who co-authored the CBPP proposal, told me.

Depending on how it were structured, a jobs guarantee also might act as a powerful boon to women, due to their prevalence in the poverty-wage workforce and their burden of uncompensated care work. Several proposals suggest providing a jobs guarantee to hire child-care and elder-care workers, something that would both keep the parents of young children in the labor market and ensure that caregivers got a living wage. “There are not nearly enough home care workers to aid the aged and disabled. Many working families with children under the age of five need access to affordable child care. Schools need teachers’ aides, and cities need EMTs,” the Center for American Progress jobs-guarantee outline argues. “There is no shortage of people who could do this work. What has been missing is policy that can mobilize people.”

Workers in high-unemployment regions might find their hometowns revitalized, with the government pouring vastly more money into places like Salinas, California, and Ocean City, New Jersey, in both of which the unemployment rate sits above 10 percent. Middle-class households might benefit alongside lower-income households, with the private sector competing more fiercely and directly to win workers over. Additionally, Khanna told me, a jobs guarantee might help soften the threat of automation, and the fear that another recession might lead to robots taking all of our jobs.

For all those reasons, in all the proposals, the idea is to go big. “I think fundamentally we’re trying to rethink the social contract in the United States,” said Neera Tanden, the president of CAP. “Our social contract is basically constructed for the New Deal era. The New Deal is really a function of the transformation of the economy from the agricultural age to the industrial age. And the economy has fundamentally transformed again, in the age of information and the age of globalization. But we have not changed the social contract fundamentally, yet.”

It also reflects a sense that Democrats need to be radical, a function of the political climate as much as it is of the economic climate. “The loop we’ve been in, which has been a trap, is that we propose ideas that can get bipartisan muster, and then we get argued to nil,” Tanden said. “I’m a deep believer that progressives need to offer their true ideas of what we need to do in the country on a whole list of issues and then work to build a politics that can make that happen.”

Still, none of these early Democratic efforts come close to figuring out how to provide a job to every American—instead hand-waving about where the jobs would come from, instructing states and cities to do the technocratic heavy lifting, and gesturing to the economic benefits. “It seems to me that these proposals as a general point are enthusiastic about how this might work,” said LaDonna Pavetti of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “But are perhaps underestimating how much work and how many services would have to scale up to provide those kinds of jobs.”

Consider, for instance, the simple question of what kind of jobs should be on offer. Kelton and Hamilton, along with their co-authors, have pushed for direct public employment, rather than providing wage-subsidized private jobs. “You don’t want this to be workfare,” Hamilton told me. “You want to create a true alternative.” His proposal suggests that such jobs could involve “the repair, maintenance, and expansion of the nation’s infrastructure, housing stock, and public buildings; energy-efficiency upgrades to public and private buildings; assistance with ecological restoration and services to reduce the country’s carbon footprint; engagement in community-development projects; provision of high-quality preschool and after-school services; provision of teachers’ aids; provision of high-quality elder care and companionship; rejuvenation of the nation’s defunded postal service; support for the arts; and other activities that shall support the public good.”

But does the supply of work the country needs done match the supply of workers available to do it? Those are mainly skilled, middle-class jobs—often ones that require months or even years of specialized training. Constructing a building means hiring crane operators and electricians. Adding workers to preschools means certifying individuals in early-childhood education. Care jobs are a permanent need, and would not scale up easily during a recession. Construction jobs might not be well-suited for an out-of-work population struggling with significant barriers to employment, such as addiction and mental-health issues.

RecycleForce is instructive here. “We put people in a real job, although it’s more of a theater of a job,” Gregg Keesling, the company’s president, told me. Employees, for instance, often violate the terms of their parole and get put back in jail. “The biggest barrier to normal employment and the biggest reason for going back in is the criminal-justice system itself,” Keesling told me. “We have a young man who works for a big metal-coating company, and they transferred him out to the airport to do the job. His ankle bracelet lost signal, so they went out and arrested him. He’s now in jail.”

As for Thompson, he told me that he had made some bad choices and found himself hanging out with the wrong people again. One shot him in the arm, causing him to miss work for a few weeks. He had recently gotten back, and had only been out of a sling for a day, when we spoke. “We’ve referred to RecycleForce as a safe haven,” Keith Murray, a 66-year-old who works alongside Thompson, told me. “We deal with people that have never had jobs, have never worked before, who come from dysfunctional families. We understand that we’re going to have some failures, but we don’t concentrate on the failures.”

Given the challenges that individuals struggling to find work in an economy near full employment face, existing workfare programs have often involved menial labor, like picking up trash, rather than more middle-class pursuits. But that makes those jobs far less appealing to program participants, and undercuts the argument that such jobs would provide a pathway to gainful unemployment. Indeed, in surveys of government jobs programs, direct public employment tends to perform “relatively poorly,” researchers have found. “This pattern suggests that private employers place little value on the experiences gained in a public-sector program—perhaps because many of these programs have little or no skill-building component.”

Subsidized-jobs programs—where the government pays part or all of a worker’s wages—have their own issues too. Among the biggest is the mammoth incentive for businesses to ditch their full-time workers and scoop up subsidized ones. If that happened, the government could end up encouraging and indeed financing a sprawling, sub-minimum-wage labor force. “If you really want to eliminate involuntary unemployment, you have to create an economics language of perfectly elastic demand for labor,” Kelton said. “That doesn’t mean incentivizing and cajoling and tickling the bellies of the private sector.” But Indi Dutta-Gupta of the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, who helped craft Khanna’s plan, argues that a jobs guarantee should subsidize wages for private businesses. “Subsidized jobs are intended precisely to match demand with supply—to remove barriers on the supply side and inject demand for employers,” he said.

There are other issues. A jobs guarantee would have to manage huge swings in the size and needs of its client population. “When there’s 10 percent unemployment, folks who are out there looking for jobs, some of them have very steady work histories and they’re pretty easy to place,” Dan Bloom, the director of the MDRC, which researches transitional employment programs, told me. “There was absolutely an employer that would love to have them if they could get their wage subsidies. That’s a different context than we have now, where the folks that are out of the labor market are probably going to be facing some serious issues.”

Then there is the question of how the government would go about creating all those jobs. State and local governments tend to keep a long backlog of shovel-ready infrastructure projects. But few have lists of hundreds of thousands of menial temp jobs, permanent care positions, teaching positions, and ecological restoration projects on hand—along with an infrastructure for job training and job matching, as a jobs guarantee would require. Granted, there is some existing infrastructure. “Local unemployment offices have basically been rebranded today as a local job centers or one-stop career centers,” Kelton said. “There are like more than 2,500 of these things spread all over the country.” Still, a jobs guarantee would mean the government hiring tens of thousands of bureaucrats to locate make-work and manage training and employment programs across the country—in every part of the country.

There is also the cost. “It would take a level of funding for which we would have to very much alter our fiscal outlook,” Jared Bernstein, who was former Vice President Joe Biden’s chief economist and is now at CBPP, told me. Small pilot programs aimed at stopping recidivism might pay for themselves. But a true jobs guarantee would cost something like $400 to $700 billion a year now, and vastly more during a downturn.

There are other sticky questions. How much should these jobs pay, and what kind of benefits should they provide? Would a jobs guarantee foment inflation? What would a jobs guarantee do to our understanding of the interplay between inflation, employment, and growth anyway? Would the government get rid of unemployment insurance? Would the jobs be permanent? If not, is that really a guarantee that ends joblessness, once and for all? If so, would that sap the country of some of the ingenuity of its private workforce? What share of the economy would be involved in care work? How much would that represent a movement from uncompensated, kitchen-table care work to compensated, workplace care work?

For some Democratic policy wonks, the trade-offs in both economic and political capital seem the most salient. What do you give up by implementing a jobs guarantee? What comes first: a public option for health insurance, or a major jobs plan, or an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit, or a universal child allowance, or a major educational debt-relief plan, or postal banking—all of which are ideas being pushed by Democratic presidential aspirants right now?

“How much in life do you spend money on the last mile?” Gene Sperling, who was the director of the National Economic Council under Obama, asked me. “There are big, long-term unemployment problems, right? That’s complicated. Those are people who need a lot of help. They need a lot of support. Is that really the issue, or is the issue that the working poor are not making enough money to support their families? If you’re going to spend a trillion dollars on something huge …There’s an element here of people not thinking about what they’re actually trying to do.”

In a technocratic sense, perhaps. But the technocratic problems that a jobs guarantee poses are not impossible to solve.

There are good models. RecycleForce, for instance, cuts the recidivism rate of recently incarcerated individuals to 26 percent, versus a national rate of 64 percent, Keesling told me. And it saves the taxpayer $1.20 for every dollar invested. Surveys show that similar jobs programs have raised both earnings and employment rates for their participants, and also “decreased family public benefit receipt, raised school outcomes among the children of workers, boosted workers’ school completion, lowered criminal-justice system involvement among both workers and their children, improved psychological well-being, and reduced longer-term poverty,” a survey by the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality found. “There may be additional positive effects, such as increased child-support payments and improved health.”

Scaling up transitional jobs initiatives  would be a good start, then. “There’s nothing resembling an entitlement that supports a person coming home from prison right now,” Sam Schaeffer, the executive director of the Center for Employment Opportunities, a New York-based nonprofit that provides jobs and training to the formerly incarcerated in 20 cities, told me. “To really tackle this challenge, there should be some unifying mechanism, with a mix of workforce programs, anti-poverty programs, nutrition assistance, housing, and more. We’ll pay $82 billion a year to incarcerate people. We don’t make anything like a similar investment on reentry.”

There are also models stemming from TANF-EF. JobsNOW! in San Francisco offers a tiered program to help workers with different levels of readiness for a paid job. One tier pays participants while they enroll in job-readiness or vocational training, or a high-school diploma program. It also pays participants to do relatively low-skill work at a nonprofit. Finally, there is a wage-subsidy program, aimed at individuals with work experience. On top of that, the program provides case management and wraparound services, helping ensure that participants have Medicaid and food stamps. All in all, it has increased its 20,000 participants’ earnings by an average of 55 percent, and three in four no longer need cash assistance two-and-a-half years after exiting the program.

The evidence for what works is out there, and the need especially great in certain communities and with certain individuals. Starting with pilots and scaling them up, as Booker wants to do, makes sense. So does Khanna’s model of directing state and local governments to figure out what works for them, as TANF-EF did. So does Sanders’s idea of having “hundreds” of public-works initiatives.

For all the blue-sky thinking and talk of a national, public-jobs guarantee, Democratic policymakers do seem to be taking the idea seriously, but not literally, to borrow a phrase. The idea is to indicate to the country that they want to tackle the biggest challenges with the biggest solutions—not to figure out every detail, pay for every dollar, appeal to every voter, and pass a policy bar their colleagues on the other side of the aisle have shown no interest in.

That gives Democrats room to experiment. “This is not a panacea to solve the jobs problem. It has to be attacked in multiple ways,” Khanna told me. “I would argue that this is a first, serious proposal that by my own admission I would say is not intended to be perfect.” It avoids putting them in the position of negotiating themselves down. “I see it as really opening the Overton Window in a way that is a quite useful for this debate,” Bernstein said. “I’m not in the business of negotiating with myself at this point. Let’s let all the good ideas blossom.” It vaults over the need to figure out the most difficult parts of the legislation, like how much or how to pay for such a proposal. “I’m not gonna presume how we pay for it,” Tanden said. “I do think the Republican tax plan indicates how little Republicans care about deficits when it comes to taxes. I’m not saying that we won’t care about this. But obviously it makes that an easier conversation.”

It also acknowledges that Republicans are unlikely to get on board with big Democratic ideas, freeing liberals to think bigger. “We live in the era of tribalism,” Tanden told me. “It’s hard to think through a proposal if Republicans feel like doing any deal with Democrats is noxious. Ipso facto, when a Democrat proposes something, they cannot support it because it’s the Democrats have creating it. That does not allow for compromise.”

For all the challenges a jobs guarantee would pose, there are the profound benefits it could have in knitting society’s most vulnerable in with the workforce, ending poverty, and empowering workers. Having a job at RecycleForce, Keesling told me, “People become real human beings. They become wage earners, they’re doing work that benefits the community. The guy who is stuck sucking out waste is happy. The guy on the back of the trash truck, the guy anodizing the metals for the underground wastewater treatment facility. They’re happy because they’re doing something important.”

Thompson said the $9 an hour he was making, along with his $50 a month in food stamps, was helping him make ends meet—something that would have been impossible had he not found work. More than that, he told me, the job at RecycleForce gave him the confidence, responsibility, and day-to-day structure that comes with a stable job. “I started getting hearing other people’s positive stories. I fell in with the crowd. I started picking up certifications—my forklift certification, OSHA training, fire-hazard safety training. I’m only 19 years old, and it was something new for me that I could be this young and have and have the certifications that I do have. I’m the only 19-year-old I know who has those certifications.” He added that he is working on getting his high-school diploma, and hopes to work in architecture in the future.

Murray talked at length about the pride he took in his work, and how much better it was than the punitive approach taken by the criminal-justice system itself. Those kinds of benefits are not always quantifiable, but others are. Good jobs programs keep people in the labor force. They end poverty. They improve kids’ educational outcomes. They make people healthier. They address the deep needs of society’s most vulnerable.

“They always say we recycle products, but I think we recycle people,” Murray said. “My thinking was always bad. I thought it was good, but it was always bad. This time around, I’ve managed to get a promotion. I’m a supervisor. They call me by my last name now. I’m Mr. Murray.”