Economists warn we are on the brink of another economic bust. Considering the Great Recession doubled the American unemployment rate from 5 percent to 10 percent in two years, now is the time to prepare for this looming employment crisis with meaningful policy.
Some on the left fiddle with the idea of a universal basic income, or free college tuition that could prepare more Americans for high-skill labor jobs, while the right desperately calls for restoring the good old days of U.S. manufacturing and coal jobs. But there's a simpler solution that could cast a security blanket over the most vulnerable Americans whose employment prospects will be even bleaker in a time of economic crisis.
Eric Levitz, writing for New York Magazine, surfaced an old idea with the potential to bring together progressives, centrist Dems and even some conservatives: a federal jobs guarantee bill that would give government-funded work to the unemployed. As Levitz explains, the federal jobs guarantee has a history of support from liberals throughout the past century, from Huey Long to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and most recently, Kirsten Gillibrand. There are various ideas of what this legislation could offer; the Center on Budget Policies and Priorities has proposed a version that would guarantee its participants a minimum annual wage of $24,600 plus benefits, and an average expected wage of $32,500—a figure at least three times the highest proposed universal basic income.
The authors of the paper told the Nation their plan, “would especially benefit marginalized and stigmatized workers that face structural barriers in the private sector.” Several other countries have already implemented jobs guarantee policies. Argentina reduced its unemployment rate by two-thirds after implementing its version in 2002. India’s vast National Rural Employment Guarantee Act is the largest job safety blanket in the world, giving at least 100 days of work to every household, and has received praise since its initiation in 2005. And in 2017, South Korea’s president promised to add 810,000 federal jobs through a similar program.
The U.S. actually already has a version of a federal jobs guarantee—it’s called Americorps, and it’s focused on providing vital services to struggling communities by employing regular citizens as laborers. To an extent, Americorps has been filling the void of a formal federal jobs guarantee for over 50 years. With the formation of VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) in 1965, the organization has quietly employed more than 75,000 people each year. The umbrella organization Americorps, which received federal funding, now includes the Boys and Girls Club, Habitat for Humanity, Teach for America and many others, and over a million Americans have participated in the program since its inception. Those volunteers receive either a modest living stipend or a full salary, depending on the corps they join, and they undertake vital tasks to develop housing, preserve parks, educate children, and provide health services to the poor. It’s crucial work in sectors that are understaffed—one only need note the scarcity of nurses and teachers across the country to understand how badly we need more of them.
Americorps sprung from its older sister, the New Deal, a vast national employment package ushered into practice by Franklin D. Roosevelt in response to severe unemployment during the Great Depression. The Civilian Conservation Corps, the Works Progress Administration and projects formed during the New Deal helped reduce the unemployment rate from 16.9 percent to 9.9 percent in 1936. In recent history, civil service and work programs like Americorps have shielded some Americans from unemployment.
As a millennial who harbored safely in college during the Great Recession and worried about finding a job in a competitive market after graduation, I chose the security of Americorps rather than risk the private sector. I’m not alone: According to Business Insider, Americorps applications tripled in 2009. Teach for America applications rose 35 percent in 2008, then another 40 percent in 2009. Unfortunately, many of those applicants were turned away due to the constraints of federal funding. The Center for American Progress explains how a fully fledged Americorps could have come to the aid of even more Americans after the 2007 recession if its funding had not been neglected (and could have boosted the economy in the process):
“In the aftermath of the Great Recession, this policy would have responded decisively by supporting a peak of 475,000 temporary national service positions at a time when about 4.6 million people were long-term unemployed. If this automatic policy had been in place from fiscal years 2000 to 2014, it would have cost an average of $2.6 billion per year—enabling 1.87 million Americans to serve their country for a year during tough economic times and delivering a return on investment of $3.93 in benefits to society for every dollar spent based on an economic study of national service.”
Despite a rebounding economy and shrinking unemployment rate, there is still interest in government-funded service and work programs. In 2011, technically a post-Recession year, Business Insider wrote: “AmeriCorps currently receives more than 530,000 applications for just over 80,000 spots, a 15 percent acceptance rate. Teach for America, which employs recent grads for two-year terms in inner-city schools, is even tighter, with 47,000 college grads vying for a mere 4,600 positions.”
If so many people are interested in civil service work that the programs are highly competitive, why not dedicate more government funds to employing more people in meaningful work?
Community service is not sexy, so an expansion of Americorps as a possible rally-around point for Democratic candidates is not nearly as exciting as the possibility of free college tuition. But the plethora of benefits suggests Americorps service can be a model to show how a federal jobs guarantee could work in the U.S. and even garner support across party lines. Like so many participants, Americorps introduced me to a geographic and cultural slice of the country I’d never been exposed to before and helped make me a more well-rounded American. Participating in Americorps is considered as patriotic as being in the military. What better way to invest in one’s country than by advocating for more people to help rebuild America's crumbling infrastructure, preserve its ecological treasures or repair damage caused by natural disasters? That’s something everyone can get behind.
As New York Magazine explains, the notion of a federal jobs guarantee is both radical and logical. But there is reason to believe that the public could support it: as the magazine writes, “the idea that the government has a responsibility to provide opportunities for gainful employment to all its constituents is thoroughly bipartisan.” Americans just disagree on how that responsibility should be upheld. A federal jobs guarantee avoids the traps that normally frighten conservatives away from welfare-based policies; it’s not a handout of money, but a guarantee of opportunity. The Center for American Progress even has a proposal for a federal jobs guarantee that focuses on providing jobs to non-college graduates, a demographic that has increasingly populated the Republican Party over the past decades. Conservative politicians would do well to consider it.
If centrist Democratic candidates are too nervous to advocate for guaranteed federally funded jobs for the unemployed, throwing their support behind revamping and expanding Americorps would be less controversial. If Bernie Sanders could make socialist-born proposals like free college tuition en vogue again, Democrats vying for office in 2020 can certainly make service (or at least, meaningful government work) sexy again.
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