The Job Guarantee

The Job Guarantee
Jannik Landwehr
Level: beginner
Exploring Economics, 2020
Perspective: Post-Keynesian Economics
Topic: macroeconomics
Format: Foundational Text

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The Job Guarantee

Author: Jannik Landwehr
Academic Review: Dirk Ehnts

 

1. The General Idea & Origin

The general idea of a Job Guarantee (JG) is that the government offers employment to everybody ready, willing and able to work for a living wage in the last instance as an Employer of Last Resort (Tcherneva, 2018). The concept tackles societal needs that are not satisfied by market forces and the systemic characteristic of unemployment in capitalist societies. Being a central part of the Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), attention for the JG concept rose in recent years.
Employment does not only has major personal benefits, as examined later but is also a major measure of poverty alleviation (Minsky, 1965). Notwithstanding current labour markets are not able to provide enough jobs to everybody who is willing to work, independent from business cycle movements. Hence, policies to create a full-employment economy are needed (Kalecki, 1943; Keynes, 2018 [1936]; Tcherneva, 2017).
Empirically, the idea that the state should take responsibility to provide employment opportunities can be traced back to the first half of the 20th century. Under Roosevelt’s New Deal in 1933, for a decade the federal government progressively administered and funded job projects across the country, involving 4.5 million workers at the peak (Tymoigne, 2014).
Similarly, in the academic literature, the notion of a full employment economy is nothing new. For instance, John Maynard Keynes advocated for the necessity of state intervention to attain full employment (Kaboub, 2007). In the General Theory, Keynes (2018 [1936], p. 331) states that ”[t]he outstanding faults of the economic society in which we live are its failure to provide for full employment and its arbitrary and inequitable distribution of wealth and incomes.” One of the most substantial JG proposals has been formulated by Hyman Minsky. In his book Stabilizing an Unstable Economy, the author outlines that “the main instrument of such a policy is the creation of an infinitely elastic demand for labor at a floor or minimum wage that does not depend upon long- and short-run profit expectations of business” (Minsky, 2008, p. 343).

2. Characteristics of a JG policy

Tcherneva (2018, p. 1) defines a JG as follows: “The job guarantee […] is a public option for jobs. It is a permanent, federally funded, and locally administered program that supplies voluntary employment opportunities on demand for all who are ready and willing to work at a living wage”, “irrespective of labor market status, race, sex, color, or creed” (ibid, p. 4).
To begin with, a JG policy is based on the principle of freedom of choice, which clearly opposes that welfare recipients are directly or indirectly forced to work as a form of ‘workfare’ (Tcherneva, 2018). A JG policy can only supplement an established social security system, as it no panacea for solving poverty and unemployment alone (Tcherneva, 2018; Wray, 1998). Furthermore, the JG wage setting should be according to what is considered a living wage, such that individuals have a sufficient income basis without the need for food stamps, charity, other social spending or a second job (Wray, 1998).
Projects are administered decentralized on a local level, but federally funded. Jobs are designed with respects to the needs and characteristics of the local community, considering local industrial, social and environmental infrastructure as well as skills of local participants. Working time should be individually chosen and all social groups have the right to participate, including disabled people and ex-convicts. (Tcherneva, 2018)
Main potential job fields are environmental work, the social sector, community projects and infrastructure. Jobs adapt to most urgent societal needs which are not sufficiently covered by the private sector. Furthermore, a JG scheme does not only function as a safety net but also ensures mobility into other forms of private, public or non-profit employment (Tcherneva, 2018). For that reason, training, education and apprenticeship opportunities are an important part of a JG policy (Tcherneva, 2018).

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3. Benefits of a JG policy

First, by definition, the textbook JG policy facilitates a full-employment situation, as the state creates an infinitely elastic demand for labour (Minsky, 2008; Tcherneva, 2018). Whereas a JG might not prevent from frictional unemployment, full employment can be understood as the abolishment of structural and cyclical unemployment (Wray, 1998). By guaranteeing a job opportunity and a steady living-wage a JG policy, as a bottom-up approach, reduces poverty most effectively (Minsky, 1965; Tcherneva, 2018).
Second, a JG supports labour income, thus the wage share increases. Moreover, the within labour income distribution improves as JG projects create demand and raise incomes for lower-skilled workers. (Tcherneva, 2018)
Third, the JG labour pool functions as a buffer stock for the private labour market (Mitchell, 1998). Consequently, a JG policy improves macroeconomic stability, due the buffer stock’s countercyclical mechanism (Tcherneva, 2018). In a recession, the buffer stock absorbs workers, which drop out of the private sector and vice versa. Public fiscal spending will automatically adjust and does not rely upon policymaker’s forecasts, targets and conceptual understanding of the economy’s mechanisms (Fullwiler, 2007).
Fourth, the living wage, paid to JG workers, sets a basic wage floor below which private-sector wages practically cannot fall, i.e. the JG wage functions as an indirect minimum wage. No worker will be willing to work for a lower wage in the private sector if a JG job generates a higher income. Additionally, JG projects could take a role model function and establish a labour standard for decent work via the same mechanism. (Wray 2015; Tcherneva 2018)
Fifth, a JG policy prevents human capital loss through (long-term) unemployment (Tcherneva, 2018). As Tcherneva (2017, p. 8) states: “[U]nemployment breeds unemployability […]”. On the one hand, because of individual demotivation, on the other hand, due to certain labour market dynamics – employers disadvantage workers with significant gaps in their work experience (Tcherneva, 2017). The provision of training and education measurements even fosters the acquisition of new skills, reduces the costs of rehiring and facilitates the integration into the labour market (Godin & Lang, 2018).
Sixth, JG projects can tackle various socioeconomic issues. A JG is based on the separation of employment and profitability, allowing for the investment in public goods and social services which are detrimental for the society’s well-being but not covered by private firms (Tcherneva, 2018). The studies of Tcherneva (2013) and Abukhadrah (2017) show that a correct policy design can enhance women empowerment significantly. Furthermore, a JG can enhance caretaking for certain social groups (elderly, disabled, homeless, …), community cohesion and environmental work (Tcherneva, 2018). Also, the decline of unemployment and related social exclusion can decrease interracial, interethnic tensions, antisocial, violent and criminal behaviour and drug abuse (Darity, 1999; Tcherneva, 2017).
Seventh, besides material and socioeconomic issues, a JG can have multiple impacts on the well-being of individuals (Tcherneva, 2017, 2018). Whereas the JG approach follows a concept of social inclusion, traditional unemployment policies have significant, lasting negative effects on social participation and the social capital of unemployed (Kunze & Suppa, 2017). Generally, unemployment is detrimental for health, as concerned persons show increasing rates of alcoholism, physical illness, psychological illness (e.g. depression and anxiety), insecurity as well as decreased morality and motivation (Linn et al., 1985; Wisman, 2010; Wray, 2015). The socioeconomic costs, as well as the deprivation of human and social capital and physical and mental health conditions, lead to vicious cycles of unemployment, which are hard to break (Darity, 1999; Tcherneva, 2017). A JG scheme tackles psychological and behavioural factors on the individual level, hence thwart social deprivation and the vicious cycle/dynamic of unemployment (Tcherneva, 2017, 2018).

4. What do critics say – discussing a JG policy

4.1 Financing

Critics of the JG approach argue that such policy is very costly and that cost estimations are generally set to low, as for example material costs of capital equipment and supervisory labour or hidden unemployment are disregarded (Aspromourgos, 2000; Sawyer, 2003).  However, proponents argue that the higher income and spending is likely to stimulate the private sector, resulting in a reduction of the JG labour pool (Kaboub, 2013; Tcherneva, 2018).
How much does a comprehensive JG approximately cost? As already addressed, the budget for a public JG scheme fluctuates according to economic movements in a countercyclical manner (Tcherneva, 2018). Referring to the US, Harvey (1989), as well as Wray (1998), estimated the overall costs to be lower than 1% of GDP. Also, the studies from Gordon (1997), Majewski (2004) and Fullwiler (2007) show that the implementation costs for a JG can be estimated around 1% of GDP.
In an extensive calculation for the US, Kaboub (2013) calculates programme costs equal to 593.8 billion $ or 3.93% of the US GDP. The author considers a JG programme with 23.4 million participants, an additional annual benefit package and material costs. Kaboub (2013) further subtracts sales tax revenues, income tax and multiple cost reduction effects.
Tcherneva (2018), who estimates JG expenditures to be between 0.8% and 2% of the US GDP, emphasizes the importance of potential savings. Some of the main anti-poverty expenditures by the federal government and the states could be saved with the implementation of a JG. In 2015 the US states spent 505 billion $ on social services and income maintenance for people on public welfare, not including health care, policing or corrections (Tcherneva, 2018).

4.2 Price stability

To begin with, proponents argue that a JG contributes to the stabilization of inflationary fluctuations, due to the countercyclical character of the buffer stock (Fullwiler, 2007; Tcherneva, 2018). Furthermore, Wray (2015) states that the introduction of a floor price for labour cannot generate inflationary pressure on the market wage, as a fixed basic compensation package does not pressure private labour market wages into a competitive spiral but will prevent them to fall under a certain threshold, hence averts the emergence of serious deflation (Mitchell, 1998). Also, a JG stabilizes income and consumption of programme workers, contributing to macroeconomic stability (Wray, 2015).
Critics often argue with the rather orthodox concept of the NAIRU (non-accelerating inflation rate of unemployment) which derives from the Phillips Curve – the nexus between unemployment and inflation. Accordingly, a JG policy would lead to accelerating levels of inflation as soon as the unemployment rate falls below the NAIRU-level. In the mainstream view, the Phillips Curve illustrates the impact of scarcity and market forces, whereas, in the Post-Keynesian theory, lower rates of unemployment affect price levels through a related increase in the strength of worker’s bargaining power (Lavoie, 2014). Following the Post-Keynesian view, two lines of argument are distinctive.  
First, the NAIRU depicts the level of unemployment, which disciplines workers and limits their bargaining power to the degree that the real wage stays stable (Sawyer, 2003). A JG-full-employment situation might not display the same characteristics as a true private-sector-full-employment case. It is assumed that the buffer stock labour under a JG is analogous to the unemployed under present policies and the JG wage is equal to an already existing minimum wage (Mitchell, 1998). Consequently, Sawyer (2003) and Halevi & Kriesler (2001) conclude that the implementation of a JG policy would cause lower levels of private sector employment rather than a higher level of inflation, as a JG job is perceived as better than current unemployment benefits.
Second, the NAIRU represents the lack of productive capacity for providing full employment without inflation (Sawyer, 2003). This view of inflation considers the scale of aggregate productive capacity as well as the sectoral and geographical distribution (Sawyer, 2003). The general idea is that prices are rigid in the short run and firms react with an increase of capacity utilization to a JG-induced increase in demand (Palley, 2015). Palley (2015) argues for a threshold problem of economic capacity. The author points out that wages, spend by JG workers, induce multiplier effects across sectors. As the economy consists of multiple sectors with different attributes, some are likely to reach the full employment barrier before others (Palley, 2015). Hence, the prevention of inflationary pressure requires an adequate relation between reserve capacities and the available labour (Kalecki, 1990).

4.3 The Conflict Between Labour and Capital

Ramsay (2002) argues that the central mechanisms of a JG policy are politically untenable. In a Marxian view, a reserve army of unemployed bears a functional role for capitalist economies which is to hold down wages and enforce worker’s discipline to maintain profits of the capitalist class. Business leaders would have to face social and political changes in the form of growing class consciousness of workers (Kalecki, 1943). Consequently, strikes for better wages and working conditions might undermine the position of capitalists (Kalecki, 1943). Accordingly, Halevi & Kriesler (2001) predict that without unemployment as the means of discipline, social and political tension would result in political instability. Kalecki (1943, p. 326) further states that “[…] ’discipline in the factories’ and ‘political stability’ are more appreciated by the business leaders than profits.” As capital owners are generally endowed with more political power than workers, they will initiate policies to restore the prevailing class relations (Ramsay, 2002).

4.4 Practical Objections

On the one hand, the work experience of JG jobs does not depict a high value for the private sector, as JG projects provide socially useful jobs which rather do not compete with already existing private jobs (Kadmos & O’Hara, 2000; Wray, 1998). On the other hand, for existing public sector jobs the jeopardy is high to replace jobs with initially higher compensation and skill requirements. In such a case, a cheaper JG worker undermines existing public sector pay arrangements (Palley, 2015).
Furthermore, certain occupations, especially those involving social interaction, e.g. elderly care, require comprehensive skills (Kadmos & O’Hara, 2000). JG workers must be carefully checked for their suitability with regards to certain activities. Additionally, capital equipment must cope with labour pool fluctuations (Sawyer, 2003). Also, projects administrations need to consider that active job search (in the private labour market) might require much time (Sawyer, 2003). A further issue to address is the strategy of project administrations in the case of uncooperative individuals.

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5. Empirical examples and recent developments

Several countries established JG-similar policies – most prominent examples are the 1930s Work Programmes in the US, the Plan Jefes y Jefas de Hogares in Argentina, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act in India, the Productive Safety Net Programme in Ethiopia and the Swedish Model of the 1970s and 1980s.
In the framework of the New Deal, several work programmes were, selected, funded and supervised by the US government in 1933 (Tymoigne, 2014). Although it was an emergency policy to foster the recovery after the Great Depression, this political measure is similar to a federal JG. Jobs mostly belong to the infrastructure industry and environmental activities, like reforestation, soil conservation, fire and flood prevention or wildlife protection.
In order to deal with the massive unemployment and poverty in the aftermath of a crisis in 2001, the Argentinian government established a public employment programme which was phased out after 4.5 years, due to political changes (Tcherneva, 2013; Tcherneva & Wray, 2007). 87% of the programme’s beneficiaries were involved in community projects and the biggest achievement was the contribution to gender equality – 70% of the programme’s participants were women (Wray, 2007).
In 2005 the Indian Parliament adopted the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, a continuation of India’s history of employment provision  (Wray, 2007). The policy addresses the growing concerns of increasing unemployment and poverty in rural areas and guarantees 100 days of work per year in rural, public working projects to one person of each household (Kaboub, 2007).

The Ethiopian government implemented the Productive Safety Net Programme in 2004, reaching 7 million individuals in 47.000 communities, as a reaction to the country’s vulnerability to climate catastrophes (Fortun, 2017; Jones et al., 2010). Up to 85% of the Ethiopian population is employed in the agricultural sector which accounts for 42% of GDP (Byerlee et al., 2007).
The so-called Swedish Model refers to a strategy, applied by the Swedish government during the 1970s and 1980s, which maintained price stability and unemployment rates around 2% on average (Holmlund, 2009; Kaboub, 2007). The corporatist model, developed by Rehn and Meidner after World War II, was based on highly centralized wage bargaining as well as active labour market policies (Kaboub, 2007).
Today, the JG approach also made it into the political agenda of western countries. Accordingly, the idea was included in the Resolution for a Green New Deal in the US (Ocasio-Cortez, 2019, p. 13). France launched an experiment of public job projects in June 2017 called “territories with zero long-term unemployment” (ETCLD, 2018). The TZCLD is a political reaction to the increase in long-term unemployment and the structurally high unemployment, which was above 10% between 2013 and 2017 (Brun-Schammé et al., 2016; ESEC, 2015). Main institutions which provide research about the JG concept are the Centre of Full Employment and Price Stability (CFEPS), the Centre of Full Employment and Equity (CofFEE), and the Levy Economics Institute of Bard College in the USA (Lavoie, 2013).
For a further overview, table 1 comprises main JG-similar empirical examples, including their characteristics, costs, and outcome as well as the main differences to a textbook JG policy.

Table 1: Overview of JG similar examples

Country

Time

Size/
Participants

Differences to a JG

Price
stability

Evaluation

Costs

USA

1930-1943,

New Deal

Average:
2,7M

Peak:
4,5M

- Depression solution

- not permanent

- no living wage

- limited capacity

yes

- Higher growth, lower unemployment

- environmental improvements

- improvement of workers’ health and productivity

- The policy faced political constraints.

UR.*

Costs of GDP**

< 5%

1,39%

5-10%

3,74%

10-15%

8,74%

Argentina

2002-2006

Peak: 2M

= 13% of the labour force

- Depression solution

- compensation below the poverty line

- limited participation

- limited working time

Yes, but short-term price
increase

- Contribution to recovery

- socioeconomic impacts: gender equality, community solidarity, lower drugs and crime, personal well-being

- good transition to the PLM

1% of GDP
at the peak

India

2005-today

Over 50M households

- Non-universal

- working time and participatory limitations

yes

- Diminishing poverty

- environmental improvements

- socioeconomic impacts: better organization of workers, gender equality

- The policy faced political constraints

1.3% of GDP

Ethiopia

2004-today

7M

- Working time
restrictions

- Payment as an add-on to the usual income

yes

- Shock resilience

- increased household assets

- water security, infrastructure, environmental improvements

- social cohesion, gender equality

- increased acceptance of government

» 0.6-1% of GDP
(supported by international development agencies)

Sweden

1970s and 1980s

Unemployment rate around 2% on average

Full employment was reached by active social labour market policies and subsidies for training and job search

yes

Large compromises of employer representatives and trade unions directed at the interest of the right to work - it is possible to overcome class conflicts with political initiative

Costs were carried by the annual Budget

France

2017-2021
(at least)

About 2000 long-term unemployed

- Experiment character

- Limited to long-term unemployed

- certain conditions for participation

yes

So far it was possible to make over half of the unemployable individuals employable again

26.000€ per year per full time
position

*UR. = Unemployment rate ** all unemployed are enrolled in New Deal Programmes + Living wage (see Tymoigne (2014, p. 32)) Source: own compilation, including information from: ATD Fourth World (2019); Azam (2012); Dasgupta (2013); ETCLD (2018); Fortun (2017); Holmlund (2009); Jones et al. (2010); Kaboub (2007); Tcherneva (2013); Tcherneva & Wray (2007); Tymoigne (2014); World Bank (2013); Wray (2007).

 

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