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Democrats Embrace Guaranteed Jobs Proposal


OK. This is, of course, an election year. And now that primary season is underway, buzz is already building about potential Democratic presidential candidates for 2020, and a few of them have coalesced around a seriously ambitious policy idea. NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben has more.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: The economy is always a major concern to voters, even when times are good, so presidents end up talking about jobs a lot.


RONALD REAGAN: We can't support families unless there are jobs.


BILL CLINTON: If you are sick and tired of a government that doesn't work to create jobs...


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I will be the greatest jobs president that God ever created. Believe me.

KURTZLEBEN: And so a few of the most-talked-about potential Democratic challengers to President Trump have a sweeping idea - guaranteed jobs for everyone.


CORY BOOKER: I just have this firm belief that was expressed by everybody from Martin Luther King to FDR that people who want to work should be able to work, and we as a society should honor the dignity of a job.

KURTZLEBEN: New Jersey Senator Cory Booker spoke last week at the University of Chicago. He has proposed a pilot job guarantee plan. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand also have job guarantee plans in the works. It's an idea supported by other Democrats, including Senators Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren and Jeff Merkley. The basic underlying idea is simple, according to William Darity, an economist at Duke University. He spoke to NPR via Skype.

WILLIAM DARITY: Everybody would be assured of being able to work if they were seeking work. And so, in effect, the unemployment rate would be zero.

KURTZLEBEN: But it's not just about the unemployment rate. Both Booker and Sanders would phase in a minimum hourly wage of $15 for these new jobs and also provide paid sick leave and health care. The types of jobs would include building infrastructure like roads, as well as providing services like child care. Here's Booker again.


BOOKER: We've taken big steps and big programs from unemployment insurance to a social safety net to all try to stop people falling when they fall out of employment. Well, why not go right to the heart of the problem?

KURTZLEBEN: Why not? Well, about that...

DOUGLAS HOLTZ-EAKIN: You're not just going to get people who have been unable to find work in the private sector for whatever reason. You're going to get a lot of people, and a lot of people means a lot of money, so the federal budget's going to explode.

KURTZLEBEN: That's Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former director of the Congressional Budget Office and the president of the right-leaning American Action Forum. If such a program comes with big tax hikes, he argues that it could be counterproductive.

HOLTZ-EAKIN: You're going to actually undermine the private economy that is needed to pay those bills, so it doesn't really add up.

KURTZLEBEN: Then again, proponents say such a program would at least partly pay for itself. Booker explained that.


BOOKER: I mean, if you look at all these programs that are trying to make up for either no work or inadequate-paying work as companies outsource their labor costs on us, the taxpayers, that that - those programs alone are billions and billions of dollars.

KURTZLEBEN: There are other major potential problems, like inflation, or firms may have trouble finding workers as those workers flood into the government program. It's true that the federal government has created large-scale job programs before. Job guarantee programs are often compared to the Depression-era Works Progress Administration.


UNIDENTIFIED NARRATOR: Anxiously, we waited, waited for some sign of better days. Then came the federal government's work program. One by one, it took us out of the bread line.

KURTZLEBEN: But then unemployment hit an estimated 25 percent during the Depression. Today, it's at a healthy 3.9 percent. So why put the idea out there now? One major argument is that the labor market perpetually leaves some Americans behind, even when it's healthy. Jared Bernstein was chief economist to Vice President Joe Biden and is a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

JARED BERNSTEIN: The black unemployment rate is always twice that of the white rate. That's the outcome of a persistent market failure that's very much leavened by racial discrimination.

KURTZLEBEN: But prospective candidates don't put out sweeping proposals because of economics alone. Proposals like a job guarantee, Medicare for all and debt-free college have moved from the policy fringe to the mainstream in the Democratic Party as it tries to create a clear outline of what Democrats stand for. Adam Jentleson served as deputy chief of staff to former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

ADAM JENTLESON: The base of the Democratic Party has moved to the left, and the strength and energy of the party right now is in the left wing.

KURTZLEBEN: A policy like a job guarantee could help win over that left wing, but it's also the kind of idea that may never be much more than a campaign promise. Danielle Kurtzleben, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.