Questions about Job Guarantee

There’s often a good deal of head-butting, sometimes quite acrimonious, between the Job Guarantee proponents and the Universal Basic Income proponents.  In some ways it comes from a fundamental disconnect about how we should lift people out of poverty; UBI says “Give everyone funds!”, and JG says “Give everyone jobs!”.

For me, I feel that the “Give everyone jobs!” approach buys deeply into the lie that personal value and self worth come from having paid employment, and it excludes large portions of the population from that “safety net”.  I also feel that, as a primary social safety net, it would come a little too close to our existing welfare work requirements- becoming much like a modern, polished up version of Victorian workhouses.

For the record, I am not against the idea of a voluntary, equitable Job Guarantee program, but I have serious questions that I would like to see addressed by the JG people. (I have asked these JG questions before, and never really gotten any clear answers other than variations on “No it wouldn’t!”)

1) How will you ensure that the jobs made available to people aren’t just the ‘undesireable’ jobs that no one else will take?

2) How will you prevent or alleviate the social stigma that is likely to come with jobs that people are given through JG?

These first two are related. Our society already has built-in classism surrounding the type of jobs people have. Society stratifies jobs into “skilled” and “unskilled” labor, a derogatory division based on education level, not actual skills used.  We look down on the burger flippers, the garbage truck drivers, the grocery baggers and the gas station attendants as being Less Than.  We see them as less deserving of a living wage, less deserving of basic respect, less than someone who “can get a real job”. People say things like “Flipping burgers is a job, not a career.” and “Anyone could do that job, why should they get paid more?”

It gets worse if you are on any sort of public assistance- people feel free to judge your clothing, your food, your home, even your “extras”, no matter how you got them- and not only judge, but publicly call out and shame you. Buy a nice steak for a special occasion with food stamps, and you’re likely to go viral as an example of The Underserving Poor; “My tax dollars! Those People! Just a drain on Hard Working Americans!” Our society tacitly demands that poor people look and act the “correct” way, so we can feel smugly superior to them, all while patting ourselves on the back for not being them.

So what happens when we have a Job Guarantee program?  What happens when the government is handing jobs to people? How do we prevent “They had to get a job from JG, they can’t get a real job.” or “This is a JG job, how dare they ask for a higher wage!” or “I wouldn’t give them a promotion, they got this job through JG.”, when this mentality is already happening?

3) How will you make sure that people are getting jobs that are commensurate with their education and experience levels?

The job market is already saturated with people who are overqualified for their jobs. There are PhDs working at McDonald’s and the local grocery store. There are people who got the degree, did everything “right” according to our societies rules about Getting a Real Job… and still aren’t making a living wage.

Will a JG program guarantee someone a job that is relevant and meaningful to them, that makes best use of their skills and knowledge… or will it be working on the beggars can’t be choosers premise, and you’ll be expected to take whatever job is available to you? If the premise is paid employment = happiness how does that hold up if someone who’s got a skill… ends up constantly digging ditches or picking up trash on the freeway? Do we roll back around to the social stigma? “Just be grateful we gave you a job!”

4) How will you make sure that there are jobs available to be “guaranteed”, while still supporting innovation?

Where are the jobs that are being guaranteed coming from? I’ve heard FDR-type public infrastructure projects, but what happens when those projects run out? Going back to #3, what happens when your project needs cement pourers, and the people in line at the JG office are all programmers?  How do you keep a steady stream of living wage jobs going? How do you ensure purposeful work, rather than (to quote a book with a badly implemented societal JG) “Wiping the bottoms of the incontinent at both ends of life.”

And then, how do you keep that steady stream of jobs going, without stifling innovation and automation? We already have people fighting against things like self-checkout at grocery stores and restaurants, because it “Takes away jobs!” There’s already gloom-and-doom articles about automation- all couched in terms of the number of jobs lost, not in terms of the amount of human labor saved.  Automation should be something we look forward to, because it means less work for a human being- but we’re SO wrapped up in the mentality that human worth and happiness comes from paid employment, that the idea of less things for humans to labor at terrifies people.

5) What will you do to make sure that Job Guarantee programs are truly voluntary, for those people who want to have paid employment, rather than mandatory for social service access and survival?

JG people react very badly to the implication that it would be any sort of forced labor situation.  They will protest that it will be voluntary,  no one will be forced to get a job through JG, people will have a choice… but when your choice is “Take a job through JG” or “Poverty and Suffering”, then it isn’t much of a choice.  We already have this in our society;  in order to survive, people are required to take whatever paid employment presents itself  -no matter how physically, mentally and/or emotionally damaging that job might be.  In order to access social supports, people have to prove they are looking for work (even though the documentation requirements are outdated and unrealistic), and they must take whichever job is offered to them first -and then their financial benefits are cut off before they receive a paycheck, often exacerbating the debt effects of poverty.

How much worse could that become under a Job Guarantee based system? Would people be required to participate in JG to access food stamps, housing, etc? What happens to people not in the JG program? (For a really dystopian view of a stratified society with JG, read Silverberg’s “The Time Hoppers”) Which brings us to the next question…

6) What will you be doing to support the people who are not covered by paid-employment based social initiatives like Job Guarantee and Minimum Wage?

Because our society is paid-employment-centric, seeing paid employment as the primary source of human purpose and value, poverty-reduction initiatives usually focus on employment.  Job Guarantee wants everyone to have a job. Minimum Wage wants everyone to have a living wage.  These things are worthy, effective goals… but they leave out huge segments of the population; all those people who, for whatever reason, aren’t engaged in paid employment.

This is already a huge issue in the way our society treats the disabled and elderly; disabled people have to prove that they can’t labor to get benefits, and then are actively restricted in their assets.  The elderly are dependent on Social Security, which only applies to those people who had paid employment previously. And they are also restricted in their access to supports, being legally required to make themselves poor through “spend down” before they can have things like home care paid for.

And then we have the people who are doing things, but aren’t engaged in standard wage-work.  Freelance artists and writers (who often have to fight for their income), contract workers, anyone doing the ‘gig economy’, stay at home caregivers of the elderly and disabled,  stay at home parents, volunteers, unpaid interns, students… the list goes on and on.

All of these people are excluded from the benefits of a Job Guarantee or Minimum Wage initiative.  In fact, without other comprehensive social supports, JG and MinWage programs are actively discriminatory- treating the non-employed as less worthy of social and financial stability than the employed. I think this is the major point of divergence between Job Guarantee and Basic Income- UBI believes that everyone is deserving of a stable financial baseline, regardless of their current, former, or future status as a laborer.

7) Why do you feel Job Guarantee should be a societal goal? 

What is it that makes Job Guarantee important to you? Why do you feel Paid Employment For All is part of the answer to growing wealth inequality, automation and job loss? Do you feel that adult humans can only be happy and productive with paid employment? What message does that send to people not engaged in paid employment?

Stability first, THEN employment

I am all for the idea of a Job Guarantee program replacing our existing Unemployment offices. A place that people who want paid employment can go and get comprehensive job search support & job training. Someplace employers can go to find qualified employees. Someplace that supports and uplifts the people looking for work.

But I am 110% against the idea of participation in Job Guarantee being necessary to survive.  There’s too many ways a system like that hurts rather than helps people.  And you can insist that it’s “voluntary” and no one’s being “forced”… but someone doesn’t have to be manhandled and chained to be forced into exploitative labor – all it takes is the societal belief that you have to be employed, or you’re not worth anything.  We already have that, Job Guarantee could make it much worse.

This is why I support Basic Income before things like Job Guarantee and Minimum Wage. Build the solid foundation first  -one that supports everyone-  then look at supporting the employed.