At this point, a job guarantee is more a clarion call than a specific policy. No one has a bill that could be readily implemented tomorrow, or even in 2021. Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) comes closest with his bill, the Humphrey-Hawkins 21st Century Full Employment and Training Act, named after the largely failed 1970s bill pushed by civil rights activists and unions to enact a job guarantee. But Conyers's plan isn't particularly detailed, and leaves most of the implementation details up to states, local governments, not-for-profits, and other recipients of federal grants under the law.
Working through the details on the job guarantee is crucially important, especially for political survival. American history shows that even a mostly effective program can become politically toxic.
In the 1970s, amid economic malaise driven by the oil crisis, the federal government began funding job positions through the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA). The program got some $47 billion in funding from its passage in 1973 to its dissolution in 1982; in 1977, President Jimmy Carter started directing more and more of that money toward public sector jobs, until by 1978 some 725,000 people had public sector jobs through CETA.
"CETA's size," Temple University political scientist Gary Mucciaroni writes, "dwarfed not only the employment programs of the 1960s but the entire War on Poverty effort."
If you believe job guarantee advocates, the program should have been politically durable and popular, as it tied benefits to recipients' willingness to work in the public sector and contribute to society.
It wasn't. Instead, among its many opponents, the program became synonymous with corrupt liberal governance — a "visible symbol," Mucciaroni writes, "of what its opponents argued was the futility and failure of government attempts to solve social and economic problems."
"Like any government program, there were problems … but by and large it was a pretty successful program that got people employed quickly," Carl Van Horn, a distinguished professor public policy at Rutgers and an expert on employment policy, told me. "But when Ronald Reagan was elected to succeed Carter, he announced that we had to get rid of this program … It was more about the symbol, of some people getting jobs to do things that weren't perceived as worthwhile."
And to be clear, some people with CETA jobs were doing things that weren't worthwhile. Van Horn estimates that 5 to 10 percent of CETA projects were boondoggles or otherwise wasteful. But those projects are easy to publicize, and can be used to doom the program as a whole.
When the next recession hit, in 1981 to 1982, the worst downturn until the 2007 to 2009 financial crisis, the CETA program was so "radioactive," as Van Horn puts it, that no one really proposed trying mass public job creation again.
"It also became intertwined with race," Brown political scientist and sociologist Margaret Weir notes. Joblessness was seen as a black problem, and blacks were seen as primary beneficiaries of the public sector positions created by CETA in cities.
If CETA was effective but politically toxic, plenty of other public employment programs haven't even been effective. While job guarantee programs envision a broad, inclusive program that can integrate all participants into the broader economy, the result is often a program that serves people who can't get work anywhere else, and still can't get work anywhere else after the program is finished.
Berkeley economist David Card recently conducted a meta-analysis of more than 200 evaluations of programs meant to boost labor markets, along with fellow economists Jochen Kluve and Andrea Weber. While they found a variety of impacts of different program, one constant was that public employment programs that simply hired people directly performed worst.
"Public sector employment subsidies tend to have negligible or even negative impacts at all horizons," the study concludes. "This pattern suggests that private employers place little value on the experiences gained in a public sector program." One reason, they suggested, was that the programs did nothing to help build skills that would make participants more employable.
Job guarantee advocates counter that a well-designed program would get around these concerns. CAP's Martin argues that sound design would both permanently increase public employment, meaning unemployability in the private sector isn't a concern, and that it will involve training programs that can boost skills.
Margaret Weir also expresses hope that a universal job guarantee could be more politically viable than the 1970s public employment program. "The jobs problem is perceived as a white problem now," she notes. "I think that local government and nonprofits are more capable/professional now than they were in the 1970s, and could more easily implement a jobs program."
Van Horn, on the other hand, expressed skepticism, fearing the same factors could doom public sector employment this time around, especially America's fundamental uneasiness with direct government intervention into the job market. "I'd say it's more likely we'd have a single-payer health care system than a guaranteed job program, and that's also a reach," he says. "There's a very long tradition in public policy and the history of this country that this is a lightly managed economy … The idea that the government would suddenly change after 200 years of not doing that, and certainly not in the modern era, I just don't think it's likely."
All which means job guarantee advocates should be thinking seriously about the details. The experience with CETA is a reminder that the line between a brilliant idea and a political failure is narrow, and that funding even a handful of bad or bad-looking projects can easily doom a program.
After the initial energy for public jobs and even a jobs guarantee in the 1960s and 1970s, "the flurry of new programs," Weir wrote in her 1992 book Politics and Jobs, "was followed only a few years later by disillusionment and a sharp scaling down of resources devoted to them."