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Back to Work

How Democrats can win over Americans left behind in the new economy.

Illustration by Alex Nabaum

In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, and amid the wilderness of uncertainty surrounding the presidential race in 2020, one thing is for sure: Democrats need to change the way they talk about the economy. Trump made sweeping promises about jobs that he almost certainly will not keep. “We’re gonna put our people back to work,” he told his supporters. “I’m going to create jobs, great jobs,” he vowed. “If you get laid off on Tuesday, I still want your vote. I’ll get you a new job, don’t worry about it.”

Such vague and misleading assurances are almost impossible to combat—especially if Democrats stick to their normal, ineffectual script. Hillary Clinton promised a “new bargain for the new economy”—but she never actually pledged to give Americans what they need in this one. She vowed to provide tax relief to small businesses and invest in infrastructure, but she left it to voters to figure out how something as distant and programmatic as cutting taxes or building a bridge would get them a better paycheck.

If Democrats want to win elections, they should imbue Trump’s empty rhetoric with a real promise: a good job for every American who wants one. It’s time to make a federal jobs guarantee the central tenet of the party’s platform. This is the type of simple, straightforward plan that Democrats need in order to connect with Americans who struggle to survive in the twenty-first-century economy. And while a big, New Deal–style government program might seem like a nonstarter in this day and age—just look at the continuing battle over the Affordable Care Act—a jobs guarantee isn’t actually so far-fetched.

Americans overwhelmingly want to work: Most people say they get a sense of identity from their job and would keep working even if they won the lottery. Joblessness is even associated with poorer mental and physical health for entire families—not working appears to make us sick. And there’s already strong support for a jobs guarantee: In a 2014 poll, 47 percent said they favor such a program. A jobs guarantee holds the promise not just of jobs for all, but of a stronger and more productive economy for everyone. The biggest obstacle, in fact, might be the Democratic Party’s own timidity.

A jobs guarantee isn’t new to the Democratic Party. Huey Long wanted one, Franklin Roosevelt called for one, and George McGovern proposed one when he ran for president in 1972. The promise to push the economy into full employment was a fundamental Democratic theme for decades. But when McGovern lost to Richard Nixon in a landslide, the newly ascendant neoliberal wing of the party blamed McGovern’s populism for his defeat. They turned the party toward the center—supposedly the only way to win elections—and mostly left it to the private sector to keep Americans gainfully employed.

Now, in the wake of Trump’s populism-fueled victory, Democrats may be ready to circle back to the idea of a jobs guarantee. The Center for American Progress, the party’s informal policy shop that tends to tread in careful, centrist waters, just put forward its own plan. “Effective solutions must recognize the importance that Americans attach to the dignity of work,” the CAP proposal observes. “Economic frustrations arise when work at a living wage becomes impossible to find.”

The proposal highlights a key benefit to a jobs guarantee: It would improve working conditions for all Americans, even those who are already employed. Fewer than 80 percent of people in their prime years are currently employed, and some five million people work part-time but want full hours. This ready and willing pool of workers trying to get hired makes life more precarious for those with jobs. Wages have stagnated for decades, and benefits are meager: 87 percent of workers don’t get paid family leave, and one-third of those in the private sector don’t get paid sick leave. A quarter of Americans don’t even get paid holidays or vacation. But it’s hard to demand a raise or better benefits when you’re perpetually afraid of being replaced by someone willing to work for even less.

A jobs guarantee would effectively prevent private employers from pitting workers against each other. If the government offered a job to everyone who wants to work, private-sector employees could demand adequate pay, humane schedules, and more generous benefits with less fear of getting fired. In effect, corporate America would be forced to compete with the government for employees—which would put pressure on private em- ployers to provide desirable jobs. If they failed to offer a living wage and good benefits, people could simply leave for better, government-funded work.

So how, exactly, would a federal jobs guarantee work? William Darity Jr., an economist at Duke University who has long advocated for guaranteed jobs, has proposed that employment come with a minimum salary of $23,000 a year—enough to push every American above the poverty line. The CAP proposal looks similar, calling for each job to pay at least $15 an hour plus payroll taxes, or $36,000 a year. Even if the guarantee focuses only on increasing employment for workers without a college degree, CAP says, the plan would create 4.4 million new jobs.

The federal government could allow cities and states to determine which jobs are most needed in their communities. Flint might prioritize rebuilding its water system, while Fort Lauderdale could deploy more home health care aides to assist the elderly. A federal jobs program could preserve public lands in Wyoming, install broadband in East Los Angeles, and build affordable housing in New Orleans. Schools could get teaching aides; poor neighborhoods could get grocery stores. The government could provide universal, affordable childcare so more parents could work. The New Deal even employed artists to write plays and paint public murals.

Above all, providing jobs to every American would strengthen the entire economy. When a recession hits and the private sector shrinks, the newly unemployed could simply get public jobs that benefit their communities. Families wouldn’t have to go on unemployment benefits, and payroll taxes would continue to flow into local, state, and federal programs. And when private employers got back on their feet, there would be an army of well-trained workers on the lookout for new opportunities.

The idea of a guaranteed job faces some tough opposition—and not just from free-market zealots and corporate profiteers. A similar but competing proposal has been floated by some prominent thinkers: providing every citizen with a universal basic income, no strings attached. Like a jobs guarantee, the UBI would offer Americans a baseline of financial security and protect families during economic downturns. It would also enable employees to take creative risks and fight back against America’s culture of overwork.

In an ideal world, a UBI and a jobs guarantee could coexist, with a guaranteed basic income alleviating the worst poverty and giving those who can’t work a modicum of relief. But the current UBI proposals don’t go far enough to provide a complete substitute for a jobs guarantee. For one, most plans focus on giving each American $10,000 or less—leaving many far below the poverty line. And with the government supplementing incomes, private-sector employers can keep doing what they’re already doing: offering crappy, low-paying jobs.

The other danger of a UBI is what it would destroy. Many of the most prominent supporters of a universal income—from libertarians to Silicon Valley types to the former head of the Service Employees International Union—see it not as a supplement to America’s tattered safety net, but as a complete replacement for all social services. Charles Murray, co-author of the notorious The Bell Curve, argues that a UBI would eliminate the need for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, housing assistance, and “every other kind of welfare and social-services program.” A jobs guarantee, by contrast, would reduce the need for the safety net without replacing it outright.

A jobs guarantee won’t solve everything, of course. For one thing, it will make it even easier for Republicans to smear Democrats as big-government socialists looking to jack up taxes to pay for inefficient federal giveaways to the poor. A jobs guarantee comes with a pretty big sticker price: Under the CAP proposal, the government would need to spend $158 billion a year just to cover wages. If you add in benefits and administrative costs, the total soars to $670 billion a year. But as with universal health care, the steep upfront price would be largely offset by savings in other government programs, and by the added economic activity that would come from full employment and decent wages.

Then there are the neoliberals to contend with. The Democratic centrists who ran from McGovernism, and who ridiculed Bernie Sanders for advocating a free college education for all Americans, will do their best to shoot down any plan for guaranteed jobs. But those voices of caution are quieter now than before Trump took office. Today, Democrats aren’t positioning themselves as the champions of incrementalism—they’re spoiling for a fight. And as they look to rebuild the party after the fiasco of 2016, they have no choice but to go big. Voters don’t want a “new bargain for a new economy,” or tax relief for small businesses. They want a decent job with decent pay. And Democrats—if they are bold enough to support a jobs guarantee—can give it to them.