Democrats’ Next Big Thing: Government-Guaranteed Jobs

WASHINGTON — Prominent Democrats — stung by their eroding support from working-class voters but buoyed by the deficit-be-damned approach of ruling Republicans — are embracing a big idea from a bygone era: guaranteed employment.

The “job guarantee” plans, many of them pressed by Democratic White House hopefuls, vary in scope and cost, but they all center on government-sponsored employment that pays well above the $7.25-an-hour federal minimum wage — a New Deal for a new age, absent the bread lines and unemployment rates of the Great Depression. The most aggressive plans seek to all but eradicate unemployment and to set a new wage floor for all working Americans, pressuring private employers to raise wages if they want to compete for workers.

How such guarantees would be paid for is still largely unresolved. And criticism of the idea has emerged not only from conservatives who detect a whiff of socialism but also from liberals who say guaranteed employment is the wrong way to attack the central issue facing workers in this low-unemployment economy: stagnant wages.

But Democratic leaders hope the push will help their party bridge the growing political divide between white and minority workers, and silence the naysayers who accuse the party of being devoid of new, big ideas.

The employment plans, along with single-payer “Medicare for all” health care, free college, legalized marijuana and ever less restrictive immigration rules, are parts of a broader trend toward a more liberal Democratic Party in the Trump era.

“It’s going to create a more competitive labor market where people are going to start getting living wages, not just minimum wage,” said Senator Cory Booker, Democrat of New Jersey, who unveiled a job-guarantee plan in April. “Giving people the dignity of work, of being able to stand on their own two feet, there’s such a strengthening element of that.”

Many conservative economists, and some liberals, fret over the plans’ often large costs, which some Democrats would cover by repealing pieces of President Trump’s signature tax cuts. The plans could force private companies to compete with the government for workers, distort an already tight job market and push some firms out of business, they warn.

Most of all, they question the need for any government jobs program when unemployment has dipped below 4 percent.

“I don’t know if the Democrats have noticed, but jobs are doing very well,” said Larry Kudlow, the director of Mr. Trump’s National Economic Council. He said the administration would oppose such plans.

Federal job guarantees are a throwback idea. President Franklin D. Roosevelt essentially called for them in his “Second Bill of Rights” speech in 1944, which held that Americans had “the right to a useful and remunerative job” and “the right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation.” The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. endorsed the idea in the 1960s.

A handful of liberal researchers have revived and promoted such a plan in recent years, including Mark Paul, William A. Darity Jr. of Duke University and Darrick Hamilton of the New School. Last year, the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank stacked with veterans of the Obama administration, released a job guarantee proposal that would employ an estimated 4.4 million Americans. Last Tuesday, the group released a follow-up plan that detailed how it would guarantee jobs to Americans who live in particularly distressed communities, urban and rural.

Mr. Booker’s plan would create pilot programs to provide jobs to Americans in as many as 15 areas where the unemployment rate remains dismal. Its co-sponsors include three Democratic senators also seen as possible presidential candidates: Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kamala Harris of California and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York.

Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chairman, would fund “transitional” jobs lasting up to one year for workers who have been unemployed for six months or more. Representative Ro Khanna of California would provide federally subsidized employment, in the public or private sector, for anyone who wants to work, for a maximum period of two and a half years.

The most ambitious proposal, an outline from Senator Bernie Sanders, independent of Vermont and another possible White House hopeful, would promise a government job in areas such as construction, child care and park maintenance to anyone who wants one, paying a “living wage” and offering benefits on par with what current federal employees earn.

Behind the stampede is Democrats’ desire for tangible programs to offer to working-class voters, which they could contrast to Mr. Trump’s racially divisive immigration appeals to white workers.

“We are living in a world where Trump and Trumpism is trying to drive wedges between people,” said Neera Tanden, a former adviser to President Barack Obama and to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, who is the president of the Center for American Progress. “It’s important to the country and the progressive movement that we have ideas that matter in the lives of working people who are black, brown and white.”

To win control of Congress this fall and defeat Mr. Trump in 2020, she added, “We have to have some answers for how to get good jobs with a decent living for people who didn’t go to college.”

Given the current state of the job market, the operative word there is “good.” It has been a long time since jobs have been this easy to find in the United States. Unemployment fell to nearly a half-century low of 3.9 percent in April.

At the same time, wage growth has only sluggishly advanced. Real median household income is up only slightly from where it was in 2000. Critics from the left say a job guarantee will not adequately address that broad wage issue.

“It’s kind of a very large hammer in search of a nail,” said Anne Kim, the director of domestic and social policy at the Progressive Policy Institute, a liberal research group in Washington. “And it’s the wrong nail. We really should be searching for solutions to the wage stagnation problem.”

Advocates of the more targeted jobs plans say they are needed to help workers who are still stuck on the bad side of the improving national employment numbers.

“It’s a strong argument in many parts of the country that, for folks who are out there committed to finding a job, we should create this transitional program to help them get on their feet,” Mr. Van Hollen said. “You have a lot of Republicans right now who say they want to help people who are out of work by taking away their health care or other benefits, but are doing nothing to help them find a job.”

Conservatives say the most sweeping job guarantee plans could ignite runaway inflation and impose a large degree of central planning on private industry. From the left, Ms. Kim said she worries the effort would create “a permanent class of underclass jobs” that some workers would not be able to move up from.

And then there is the cost. Mr. Sanders’s office said his plan is not yet complete and thus cannot be assessed, for costs or for the benefits it would bring to the economy. Others estimate their plans would cost hundreds of billions of dollars over a decade, but could be funded all or in part by rolling back some parts of the tax law that Mr. Trump signed in December, estimated to cost $1.5 trillion over 10 years.

Democrats’ casual attitude toward cost is in part a reaction to the Republican tax bill, which was passed without much concern for rising government red ink. It also reflects a growing belief among many liberals that a clear lesson from Mr. Trump’s victory is that Democrats need to go bold — and spend big.

“The Republicans for the last 30 years have been running on supply-side economics,” Mr. Khanna said. “You cut taxes, that’s going to grow the economy, that’s going to pay for deficits. Democrats need to change the script.”

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