In his State of the Union address in 1944, Franklin Roosevelt made the case that the government had a role to play in ensuring that every American who wanted a job should and could have one. The vision was never achieved. But some 74 years later, it has become the hot new policy touchstone for progressive Democrats rumored to be running for president.
On Wednesday, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) jumped to the vanguard of those lawmakers pushing the federal-job-guarantee initiative when his office formally introduced a bill on the matter. And according to a source directly familiar with the legislation, Booker will have four powerful co-sponsors on his bill: Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). Separately, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has already broadly outlined his own approach to a federal jobs guarantee.
That possible 2020 Democrats seem eager to associate themselves with a relic of the FDR era is a remarkable reflection of the progressive lurch the party has taken in the Donald Trump era. It also is a victory for a group of relatively obscure economists and academics who have, for years, been championing the concept that every able-bodied American who wants a job could and should have one at a non-poverty wage and with benefits.
Darrick Hamilton, professor of economics and urban policy at The New School is one of those academics. He has published work alongside Mark Paul and Dr. William Darity Jr., both of Duke University, arguing for a federal jobs guarantee, analyzing the racial wealth gap and discussing policies to achieve full employment for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
He has advocated these points for years. But it was only in 2017 and 2018, that lawmakers began to truly listen—compelled to do so, Hamilton surmised, because of the election of Donald Trump.
“I think that it is the case that the Trump election, perhaps there’s a silver lining, that the status quo is not working and that the American people are ready for change and the Democrats are beginning to hone in and provide not just change but something that is substantive so we really can have an inclusive economy,” Hamilton said.
Suddenly, Hamilton had an audience on the Hill. He said he and others have been in touch with the offices of Sanders and Booker advising them on how to best shape this policy and introduce it to the public.
“They have certainly been in conversation with us,” Hamilton told The Daily Beast. “This is a movement that we are really engaged in, but it’s the culmination of the work of a lot of people,” he added. “The policy makers in D.C. are in touch with that and incorporating it into their proposals.”
In addition to the work of Hamilton, Darity and Paul, Stephanie Kelton, a professor of public policy and economics at Stony Brook University, has also taken a leading role in pushing the federal jobs guarantee initiative. Kelton, who previously served as chief economist on the U.S. Senate Budget Committee and as a senior economic adviser to Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign, authored a research project about a path to full employment earlier this year. And she, Darity and Hamilton met with Sanders and his team on February 8 to discuss the idea.
She viewed the renewed enthusiasm for the issue not as a radical deviation from Democratic norms but as a return to the principles of FDR’s Second Bill of Rights.
“We have had a significant departure from the party for many many years from where it once was and I think people have become in a sense accustomed to that lower bar and now when someone comes and suggests upping the bar, it seems radical I suppose,” she said.
Politicians have pushed smaller versions of this approach before only for it to be undone in the legislative process or dismissed entirely. The Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act, which was signed into law by President Carter in 1978 and pushed by Coretta Scott King after her husband’s assassination, sought to provide a jobs guarantee and set unemployment goals for each successive president to reach. Early iterations of the bill created a federal Job Guarantee Office but that was cut from the legislation.
In 1988, Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign platform called for providing jobs to every American via a new Works Progress Administration type program, which was a New Deal agency.
The 2018 edition of this push seems more ambitious, if only because of the number of establishment candidates who appear drawn to the proposal. A similar proposal—guaranteed income—received a far cooler reception, with former Vice President Joe Biden, slamming it as inherently discouraging of actual work. And, on the Hill, lawmakers seem keenly interested in actually having their name attached to specific legislative language that is closely associated with putting people to work and tackling cyclical unemployment.
Booker’s bill, first reported by Vox, would create a pilot program for a federal jobs guarantee initiative in up to 15 high-unemployment communities throughout the United States.
It would create a three-year program in those communities ensuring that every adult living there can have a guaranteed job which will “include a minimum wage phasing in to $15/hour, paid family and sick leave, and health coverage like that enjoyed by Members of Congress.” There are no concrete cost evaluations at this time but an estimate from experts published by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities put it at $543 billion per year.
As for Sanders, a draft outline of his bill, shared with The Daily Beast and first reported by The Washington Post, indicates that it could be much more expansive than what Booker is proposing. It would create a federal job guarantee with three categories of job and job training opportunities. To implement the jobs programs, Sanders proposes that the preexisting 2,500 American Job Centers around the country be used. In addition, there would be 12 regional offices and advisory boards to carry out projects and coordinate with a new national office within the Department of Labor.
Workers would be hired and paid a minimum wage of $15 an hour and full-time employees would receive health care benefits equivalent to other federal employees. For the purpose of oversight, the Sanders bill would catalog the status of the projects on a website and would create a Division of Progress Investigation to monitor potential waste and abuse.
On Tuesday, Sarah Treuhaft, senior director of the PolicyLink, a progressive research and advocacy organization, said that the organization had a conversation with Booker’s staff. She, along with Hamilton, Darity Jr. and Angela Glover Blackwell who founded PolicyLink, authored a set of ten principles for a federal job guarantee which were sent to Booker’s office. For people like her, no matter how the policy ends up taking shape, it’s a positive sign that the conversation is even happening at all.
“I think that the political environment that we’re in is demanding bolder policy solutions to these long entrenched issues around racial inequities in the labor market,” Treuhaft told The Daily Beast describing the current moment. “There’s a hunger from communities for real solutions that produce tangible results.”