The hidden dangers of the Democrats' job guarantee message
Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Kristen Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and others want to guarantee every American a job: If you want work, and can't find it in the private sector, the government will hook you up with a job that pays a living wage and benefits. “There is great dignity in work," Booker declared when announcing his legislation.
But there's also danger in that sort of language.
Historically, that rhetoric has been used by Republicans right before they try to cut programs like Medicaid or SNAP or impose work requirements. ObamaCare means fewer people "getting the dignity of work," Paul Ryan said in 2014. The unspoken premise is that less fortunate Americans on these programs are just too foolish or short-sighted to recognize the benefits and honor that comes with a job. So they must be stripped of government aid and driven back into the labor market — for their own good, of course.
Why then do progressives echo these conservative talking points?
Well, first off, because it's a great way to turn one of the right's favorite rhetorical weapons against its wielder.
The fact that a job guarantee would put a floor under wages, benefits, and schedules throughout the entire economy forces conservatives into all sorts of knots insisting that no, this isn't what they meant by the "dignity of work." Washington Post columnist Michael Strain was reduced to arguing that it's somehow an insult to working people to offer them a job that pays better. Try turning that into a campaign talking point.
There's also a lot of sociological evidence that unemployment really does wreak havoc on people's psychological well-being and even their physical health. "Dignity" might not be the ideal way to express this, but it's a term within reach.
Finally, there's the fact that work improves communities, especially when it's not geared towards maximizing returns for the 1 percent. "I would stay the dignity potential of work stems in the first instance from its communal implications," wrote leftist commentator Max Sawicky. "We look with favor upon those who contribute to the general welfare."
All that said, you really don't want to denigrate those who can't work because they're young, old, disabled, sick, or caring for children or other family members.
There are a few things I think job guarantee champions should do to avoid falling into this trap.
The first is to pair any job guarantee legislation with bills to strengthen the country's various cash aid programs. We already send cash to retirees, via Social Security, but the program's generosity needs to be increased. We also have a cash aid program for the disabled, but it's extraordinarily meager and patchy. For children, and for people caring for children or parents, we have basically nothing at all. This all needs to be fixed.
Job guarantee advocates also need to forcefully communicate, over and over, that the purpose of the program is to ensure a universal right. Booker, to his credit, is already thinking along these lines: "Both Martin Luther King, Jr., and President Franklin Roosevelt believed that every American had the right to a job, and that right has only become more important in this age of increasing income inequality, labor market concentration, and continued employment discrimination." A right to a job doesn't necessarily mean that everyone will exercise it, but it should be guaranteed nonetheless.
This would be the polar opposite of the conservative view: That work is something bestowed on the poor by the good graces of the rich. Instead, a job guarantee should declare that it is society's moral obligation to provide work. And it is everyone's right to join in it — but only if they so choose.