Can the U.S. guarantee every American a job?

Is it possible to guarantee a job at a good wage to everybody who wants one?  Senator Bernie Sanders is working on a proposal to do just that, and several other Democrats have endorsed the concept.

Nobody in this country has ever tried anything like this.

“Full employment” as usually understood means reducing unemployment to the lowest possible figure, now estimated at 1.5 percent.

President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal created millions of useful jobs, but fell far short of providing a job to every individual who wanted one.   He proposed a postwar economic bill of rights that included the right to a decent job, but it isn’t clear whether that was meant literally or as an aspiration.

At the present time, the most widely-discussed proposal for a job guarantee is the National Investment Employment Corps (NIEC) proposed by Mark Paul, William Darity Jr. and Darrick Hamilton, working with the Center for American Progress and the Center on Budget and Public Policy Priorities.

The NIEC would provide a job to any American 18 years old or older at a minimum annual wage of $24,600 for full-time workers ($11.83 an hour).  They would have a chance to advance within the program to $32,500.  Wages would rise with the rate of inflation or to keep pace with any increase in the national minimum wage.

Full-time workers would be given the same health insurance and other benefits as other federal employees, whose cost is estimated at $10,000 a year. There also would be an option for part-time work.

The Secretary of Labor would provide “employment grants” to state, county and local governments, as well as Indian nations, for NIEC workers to carry out community projects.  The Secretary also would work with federal agencies to identify kinds of needed work that aren’t being done.  Examples might be energy efficiency retrofitting, elder care, ecological restoration and preschool services.

Where local governments could not think up enough useful projects to provide full employment, the NIEC would step in and do the work itself.  On the other hand, it would not fund work that would displace already existing employees.  Investigators would check to prevent corruption or boondoggling.  That’s how it’s supposed to work.

Paul, Darity and Hamilton estimate NIEC would employ 10.7 million workers which, factoring in part-timers, would equal 9.7 million full-time job equivalents.

They estimate the annual cost of their program at $543 billion a year.  That would be offset, they say, by reduction in spending for food stamps, unemployment compensation, earned income tax credits and other federal programs to help the poor and unemployed, and by an increase in taxable income.

The Levy Economics Institute of Bard College has developed a less-detailed proposal, which is said to be the basis for Bernie Sanders’ proposal.  The main difference is that the Levy proposal is based on a wage of $15 an hour.

It sounds good.  What would be the problems?  I think thee are some serious ones.

The main one is that the NIEC jobs would not necessarily line up with national priorities.  I think one of the country’s most urgent needs is repair and maintenance of our physical infrastructure—the electrical grid, water and sewerage systems, roads and bridges, seaports and airports.

But much or most of this work would be done by unionized skilled trades workers who would normally earn more than $11.83 an hour and employed by private contractors.

One national need is for an equivalent to the New Deal’s Rural Electrification Administration to create universal high-speed Internet service.

The starting point should be national needs.  Put people to work doing all the things that need to be done and the result will be the rising tide that lifts all boats.

If you instead start out with the job guarantee, as Hugh Sturgess, an Australian economist, pointed out, you have to find jobs that meet the following criteria—

1) be socially beneficial, so taxpayers aren’t funding leaf-raking projects;

2) not require much in the way of skills, so anyone could indeed take one;

3) be distinct from existing public-sector jobs, so as not to undercut unionized public servants who make more than minimum wage; and

4) be inessential enough that the program can grow and shrink as needed to provide a “buffer” for bad economic times.

The problem with this is that

(1) many suggested JG jobs require skills that require more than the minimum wage;

(2) most social needs are ongoing, so should not be addressed through short-term jobs that increase and decrease based on the economic cycle

(3) it is hard to keep the JG and the mainline public sector distinct.


For what it’s worth, my own suggestion for a job creation program would be a National Emergency Response Corps, organized along the same lines as the old Civilian Conservation Corps.  It would be a military-style organization in which virtually anybody could enlist for a fixed period of time, such as three years.

Corps members would commit to being available to going to the scene of any natural disaster, such as Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, and doing whatever work was needed.  Helping to clean up after such a disaster would not require any greater skills than could be taught on the job.  They would not replace trained emergency rescue teams and other first responders.

You wouldn’t have to think up things for such a Corps to do.  But downtime could be devoted to job training in trades related to emergency response.  That’s going to be a growing line of work.


I think that millions of Americans could and should be put to work meeting the nation’s unmet needs.  I think it would be worth the large cost.

My starting point would be what’s required to meet the unmet needs rather than hiring people first and finding something for them to do second.  I think this is as close as we’re going to get to a “job guarantee” or “full employment” program.


The Federal Job Guarantee – A Policy to Achieve Permanent Full Employment by Mark Paul, William Darity Jr. and Darrick Hamilton for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The Full Employment Solution by Mark Paul, William Darity Jr. and Darrick Hamilton for The American Prospect.

Why We Need a Federal Job Guarantee by Mark Paul, William Darity Jr. and Darrick Hamilton for Jacobin.

Guaranteed Jobs Through a Public Service Employment Program by L. Randall Wray, Stephanie L. Kelton, Paulina A. Tchervneva, Scott Fullwiler and Flavia Danton for the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College.

How do our job creation recommendations stack up against a job guarantee? by Josh Bivens for the Economic Policy Institute.

Some Notes on Federal Job Guarantee Proposals by Matt Bruenig for the People’s Policy Project.

Democrats’ Job Guarantee: Awful Policy But Good Politics by Theodore Kupfer for National Review.

Democrats Are Rushing a Jobs Guarantee | It Could Be a Big Mistake by Jonathan Chait for New York magazine.

Dems’ Job Guarantee Isn’t Nearly As Easy As It Sounds by Dean Baker for The Daily Beast.

We Work by James K. Galbraith for The Baffler.

Bernie Gets Socialistic by Max B. Sawicky for Jacobin.

Just what is a job guarantee? by Matt Bruenig for Jacobin.

Why politicians should promise every American a job by Matthew Yglesias for Vox.

The Job Guarantee and the Wilted Liberal Imagination by Jack Meserve for Democracy Journal.

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One Response to “Can the U.S. guarantee every American a job?”

  1. Ataraxik Says:

    It’s impossible to guarantee everyone a job. That sort of thing has already been tried, and it never works.


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