The Center for American Progress has been a White House in waiting for mainstream Democratic candidates for over a decade now. When it places something on the agenda, that becomes part of mainstream discussion on the center left. And at its Ideas Conference this week, it embraced one idea that has been kicking around the left for a long time: guaranteed employment for anyone who wants a job.
In “Toward a Marshall Plan for America,” CAP frames this as an answer to growing despair and acute economic pain bred by stagnant wages and lack of opportunity. But few advocates who have been pushing a federal-job guarantee for so long were consulted or even cited in the proposal. And while they’re generally thrilled that their life’s work has entered a broader conversation, they’re concerned that something is getting lost in translation.
The federal-job-guarantee concept goes back to Huey Long’s Share Our Wealth plan in the 1930s. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. endorsed “employment for everyone in need of a job” in the civil-rights era. Under this framework, the government would fund jobs with a living wage and benefits similar to public-sector workers’. The open-ended program would be funded as needed, expandable in recession, and contractable when the economy recovers. Government would become the employer of last resort.
CAP’s version is somewhat targeted. Its focus is on non–college graduates specifically, which it says have been disproportionately left behind economically. Real income fell for workers without a college degree from 2000 to 2016, and mortality rates for this subset have grown. So CAP proposes a commission for a “national Marshall plan” to fund living-wage jobs at $15 an hour. “An expanded public employment program could, for example, have a target of maintaining the employment rate for prime-age workers without a bachelor’s degree at the 2000 level of 79 percent,” according to the policy brief. Right now, that would mean 4.4 million jobs at a cost of about one-quarter of Donald Trump’s tax cut.
What kinds of jobs would be created? CAP suggests that home health care, child care, and teaching aides are all urgently needed. It also cites infrastructure investment for job creation–roads and bridges, but also schools and hospitals. Interestingly, CAP also brings up the concept of public apprenticeships: paying people to engage in full-time training for high-growth occupations, with the idea of spinning out skilled workers to the private sector.
I talked to several supporters of public jobs and the federal-jobs-guarantee concept. All of them welcomed CAP to the discussion. “They’re invoking the language of a job guarantee which is a permanent program, that’s great,” said Pavlina Tcherneva of the Levy Economics Institute at Bard College. But while the adoption shows the momentum for public job creation as a political force, job-guarantee supporters had several concerns about CAP’s formulation.