In the middle of the Great Depression, at a point when around 20% of Americans were unemployed, the Works Progress Administration put millions of people back to work building roads, schools, bridges, and other infrastructure. The Civilian Conservation Corps, another agency started as part of the New Deal, hired a “tree army” that planted 3 billion trees. Now, as so many Americans have suddenly lost their jobs that the unemployment rate could surge to the same level, it raises a question: Should the government begin creating jobs like this again, to make sure anyone who wants to work has work to do?
In a new book that will come out this summer, The Case for a Job Guarantee, economist Pavlina Tcherneva argues that the policy makes sense now—but it also makes sense even when the unemployment rate is low. The basic idea is simple. “I think of it as an employment safety net,” Tcherneva says. “If you go into the unemployment office, you can collect unemployment insurance. But what if we had a policy where you were provided a choice: either you take unemployment insurance, or if you’re looking for a job, we can guarantee you a basic employment opportunity at a minimum living wage pay with some basic benefits.”
The idea is likely to get more support because of the economic destruction of the pandemic. “I think that one way or another, we’re going to come to the realization that direct employment has to happen to get us out of this extraordinary situation,” she says. That may help lead to support for an ongoing program. “I really am hoping that if we emerge out of this moment, with a realization that we need some big employment policies, that this actually becomes a permanent feature of the policy landscape.”
There’s no reason to accept even a low level of unemployment, she says. In the same way that every child has access to public education, every adult could have access to a fairly paid job. “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.”
There are a multitude of public service jobs that the government could choose to fill, from providing elderly or after-school care to rehabbing vacant properties, building flood control or fire prevention projects, or—as during the Great Depression—planting billions of trees, now with the understanding that massive tree-planting can help fight climate change. The transition that’s necessary to avoid the worst impacts of climate change will require huge changes, including installing renewable energy infrastructure, making buildings more efficient, reinventing economies in towns that once relied on coal mining, and protecting communities near coasts and rivers from flooding as the sea level rises and heavy storms become more common. All of that work can create millions of jobs, as Green New Deal proposals have called for.
Tcherneva suggests that unemployment offices, which exist in every county, could double as employment offices, coordinating with local nonprofits to understand what public service is most needed. People could still get unemployment insurance, and if a basic income existed, it could exist in parallel. But some people, for a wide variety of reasons, might want to leave the house and do some of the tasks that were available. By providing a living wage and basic benefits, Tcherneva says that it would also raise the standard for workers across the broader market.
No national job guarantee exists in any country yet, although several constitutions, based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, affirm the idea. (India also has a program that guarantees rural employment.) But there’s evidence that the policy could gain political support. One poll in 2019 found that 78% of voters supported a job guarantee; that included 71% of Republicans and 87% of Democrats. Now, it’s possible that number could be higher.
“This moment is certainly the right moment,” Tcherneva says. “It’s a bipartisan policy. It’s widely supported. A crisis moment will be by necessity a moment in which we put in place a whole host of big measures and policies. We’re not going back to the ‘normal.’ We understand that the normal is gone. And so the future is going to be dystopian, with a lot more unemployed people, with a lot more precarious work, with even what used to be safer jobs becoming more precarious and losing their basic protections. Or, we are going to be very actively engaged and engaged in this conversation of okay, what do we do going forward? That’s the moment where I think I would like to see a kind of rethinking of the safety net, and what is considered to be a basic standard—a basic opportunity for somebody to work.”