According to an ILO report issued before the global economic crisis hit, even though more people were working than ever before, the number of unemployed was also at an all time high of nearly 200 million. Further, “strong economic growth of the last half decade has only had a slight impact on the reduction of workers who live with their families in poverty…”, in part because the growth was fueling productivity growth (up 26% in the past decade) but was not creating many new jobs (up only 16.6%). The report concluded:
“Every region has to face major labour market challenges” and that “young people have more difficulties in labour markets than adults; women do not get the same opportunities as men, the lack of decent work is still high; and the potential a population has to offer is not always used because of a lack of human capital development or a mismatch between the supply and the demand side in labour markets.”
All of these statements applied equally well to the United States even at the peak of our business cycle in early 2008.
Now, of course, our labor market is in dire straits–having lost more than 6 million jobs, with official unemployment approaching 10%, and with millions more workers facing reduced hours and even reduced hourly pay. According to a New America Foundation report released late last spring, if we add “marginally attached” workers, those forced to work part-time, and those who would like to work but have given up looking, the effective unemployment total is over 30 million. Add to that another 2 million incarcerated individuals–many of whom might have avoided a life of crime if they had enjoyed better economic opportunities, and it is likely that a more accurate measure of the unemployment rate would be about 20%.
These numbers are similar to those I obtained for the Clinton boom when I estimated how many potential workers remained jobless even when the economy was supposedly at full employment. Labor force participation rates–the percent of working age population that is employed or unemployed–vary considerably by educational level; high school dropouts have very low participation rates, and correspondingly high incarceration rates. I calculated that as many as 26 million more people would be working if we brought labor force participation rates of all adults up to the levels enjoyed by college graduates. That number would be higher now because of lackluster job creation during the Bush years and due to the economic crisis. Thus, we can safely conclude that whether the US economy is booming or busting, it is chronically tens of millions of jobs short.
Comparing such numbers with President Obama’s promise that his policies will create, or at least preserve, three or four million jobs demonstrates that current policy is not up to the task of dealing with our labor market problems. To be sure, there is no single labor market policy that can deal with the scope of our problems. We certainly need to resolve the financial crisis and to restore economic growth. But as experience demonstrates, even relatively robust growth does not automatically create jobs.
We also have severe structural problems: some sectors, such as manufacturing, will create far too few jobs relative to the supply of workers with appropriate skills, while others, such as the FIRE sector–finance, insurance and real estate–likely should be downsized, and still others, such as nursing and trained childcare, face a chronic shortage. Finally, it could be argued that we face another kind of structural problem identified a half century ago by John Kenneth Galbraith: a relatively impoverished public sector and a bloated for-profit sector. Thus, while recognizing the multi-faceted nature of our problem, I believe that direct job creation by government would go a long way toward resolving a large part of–and probably the worst of–our unemployment problem even as it could put people to work to provide needed public sector services.
Direct job creation programs have been common in the US and around the world. Americans immediately think of the various New Deal programs such as the Works Progress Administration (which employed about 8 million), the Civilian Conservation Corps (2.75 million employed), and the National Youth Administration (over 2 million part-time jobs for students). Indeed, there have been calls for revival of jobs programs like VISTA and CETA to help provide employment of new high school and college graduates now facing unemployment due to the crisis.
But what I am advocating is something both broader and permanent: a universal jobs program available through the thick and thin of the business cycle. The federal government would ensure a job offer to anyone ready and willing to work, at the established program compensation level, including wages and benefits package. To make matters simple, the program wage could be set at the current minimum wage level, and then adjusted periodically as the minimum wage is raised. The usual benefits would be provided, including vacation and sick leave, and contributions to Social Security.
Note that the program compensation package would set the minimum standard that other (private and public) employers would have to meet. In this way, public policy would effectively establish the basic wage and benefits permitted in our nation–with benefits enhanced as our capacity to provide them increases. I do not imagine that determining the level of compensation will be easy; however, a public debate that brings into the open matters concerning the minimum living standard our nation should provide to its workers is not only necessary but also would be healthy.
The federal government would not have to micromanage such a program. It would provide the funding for direct job creation, but most of the jobs could be created by state and local government and by not-for-profit organizations. There are several reasons for this, but the most important is that local communities have a better understanding of needs. The New Deal was more centralized, but many of the projects were designed to bring development to rural America: electrification, irrigation, and large construction projects. To be sure, we need infrastructure spending today, but much of that can be undertaken by state and local governments. This program would provide at least some of the labor for these projects, with wages and some materials costs paid by the federal government.
More importantly, today we face a severe shortage of public services that could be substantially relieved through employment at all levels of government plus not-for-profit community service providers. Examples include elder care and childcare, playground supervision, non-hazardous environmental clean-up and caring for public space, and low-tech improvement of energy efficiency of low-income residences. Decentralization promotes targeting of projects to meet community needs–both in terms of the kinds of programs created but also in terms of matching new jobs to the skills of unemployed people in those communities. Also note that by creating millions of decentralized public service jobs, we avoid one of the major criticisms of the stimulus package: because there were not enough “on the shelf” infrastructure-type projects, it is taking a long time to create jobs. Instead, we should allow every community service organization to add paid jobs so that they can quickly expand current operations.
As the economy begins to recover, the private sector (as well as the public sector) will begin to hire again; this will draw workers out of the program. That is a good thing; indeed, one of the major purposes of this program is to keep people working so that a pool of employable labor will be available when a downturn comes to an end. Further, the program should do what it can to upgrade the skills and training of participants, and it will provide a work history for each participant to use to obtain better and higher paying work. Experience and on-the-job training is especially important for those who tend to be left behind no matter how well the economy is doing. The program can provide an alternative path to employment for those who do not go to college and cannot get into private sector apprenticeship programs.
There are some recent real world examples of programs that are similar to the one I am proposing. When Argentina faced a severe financial, economic, and social crisis early this decade, it created the “Jefes” program in which the federal government provided funding for labor and a portion of materials costs for highly decentralized projects, most of which created community service jobs. The program was targeted to poor families with children, allowing each to choose one “head of household” to participate in paid work. The program was up-and-running in a matter of four months, creating jobs for 14% of the labor force–a remarkable achievement. More recently, India has enacted the National Rural Employment Guarantee, which ensures 100 days of paid work to rural adults. While the program is limited, it does make an advance over the Jefes program: access to a job becomes a recognized human right, with the government held responsible for ensuring that right.
Indeed, the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes the right to work, not only because it is important in its own right, but also because many of the other economic and social entitlements proclaimed to be human rights cannot be secured without paying jobs. And both history and theory strongly indicate that the only way to secure a right to work is through direct job creation by government. This is not, and should not be, a responsibility of the private sector, which employs workers only on the expectation of selling output at a profit. Even if we could somehow manage economic policy to produce a permanent state of boom, we know that will still leave tens of millions of potential workers unemployed or in part-time and underpaid work. Hence, a direct government job creation program is a necessary component of any strategy of ensuring achievement of many of the internationally recognized human rights.
 Global Employment Trends Brief 2007, International Labour Office; results summarized in “Global Unemployment Remains at Historic High Despite Strong Economic Growth”, ILO 25 January 2007, Geneva. See also The Employer of Last Resort Programme: Could it work for developing countries?, L. Randall Wray, Economic and Labour Market Papers, International Labour Office, Geneva, August 2007, No. 2007/5.
 Not Out of the Woods: A Report on the Jobless Recovery Underway, New American Contract, New America Foundation, 2009, www.newamericancontract.net.
 Can a Rising Tide Raise All Boats? Evidence from the Kennedy-Johnson and Clinton-era expansions, L. Randall Wray, in Jonathan M. Harris and Neva R. Goodwin (editors), New Thinking in Macroeconomics: Social, Institutional and Environmental Perspectives, Northampton, Mass: Edward Elgar, pp. 150-181.
 See Not Out of the Woods, referenced above.
 See Gender and the job guarantee: The impact of Argentina’s Jefes program on female heads of households, Pavlina Tcherneva and L. Randall Wray, CFEPS Working Paper No. 50, 2005.