Federal Job Guarantee Goes Mainstream

Works Progress Administration

Starting in 1935, 8.5 million Americans worked directly for the federal government building schools, hospitals, storm and sewer lines, bridges, airfields, and roads, and planting millions of trees. President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Works Progress Administration (WPA) through an executive order as part of the New Deal plan when unemployment was at 20 percent during the Great Depression, and it lasted until June 1943, when unemployment had fallen to below 2 percent amid ramped up weapons production for World War II.

The current unemployment rate is 4.1 percent—the lowest it’s been in 17 years—but wages haven’t kept up with job growth, and many of the newest jobs are service industry positions that don’t offer stability or benefits. Meanwhile, public-sector employment has been shrinking, and state and local government employees currently represent a smaller share of the civilian workforce in the country than they have since 1967. Plus, the wages of public-sector employees have stagnated, leading to the recent teacher strikes in Oklahoma, West Virginia, Kentucky, Arizona, and Colorado.

Because Fortune 500 executive bonuses have yet to trickle down in a meaningful way (and they won’t) the idea of creating a new federal job program is gaining traction among not only progressives but also Democratic leaders and the public at large. On Wednesday, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker introduced a bill, and Senators Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Kamala Harris of California, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts are all expected to sign on as co-sponsors. New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand publicly supported the idea on Twitter:

Booker’s legislation would create a three-year pilot program in up to 15 communities with high unemployment. In those places, every adult who wants a job could get one that pays $15 per hour and comes with paid family and sick leave and health insurance.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has shared his own proposal to create a federal job guarantee that immediately covers the entire country, using existing job centers as well as regional offices and advisory boards to coordinate with a new national office within the Department of Labor.

Advocates say a federal job program would drive up wages across the board, reduce racial inequality (because unemployment is currently about twice as high for black workers as for white), and allow more women to join the workforce by expanding federal childcare, and a recent survey shows that the majority of Americans like the idea: The data analytics firm Civis Analytics ran a poll asking respondents if they’d be for or against a government jobs program paid for by a 5 percent income tax increase on those earning more than $200,000 per year, specifying that the bill would be proposed by Democrats in Congress. Even with that tip-off (to account for knee-jerk partisan reactions and anti-tax responses), 52 percent of all respondents supported the measure.

“Even with explicit partisan framing and the inclusion of revenue in the wording, this is one of the most popular issues we’ve ever polled,” David Shor, a senior data scientist at Civis Analytics, told The Nation. Just don’t expect the GOP or Chamber of Congress to get on board. This is all on us.