The Job Guarantee is just Workfare, isn’t it?

Fascism, Croatia 1944

Margaret Thatcher, Nigel Farage and Tony Blair. What do they have in common? Well, at some point they will have been accused of being fascists. As much as I dislike all three of them, I think it is a gross misrepresentation to refer to them as fascists and indicates woeful ignorance of mid-twentieth century European history.

For some people, the pejorative ‘fascist’ is the weapon of choice, to be deployed whenever faced with a person whose political opinion differs from their own. Even the actions of the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn get compared to Nazi Germany — by one of the party’s own MPs, no less.1

I get it with Job Guarantee, one of the policy prescriptions coming out of Modern Monetary Theory.

Such is the level of political discourse today that people of an otherwise progressive disposition think it’s acceptable to characterise as ‘fascist’ a programme which gives a meaningful and reasonably well paid job to anyone who wants one. They think the Job Guarantee is comparable with the brutal forced labour associated with the Axis powers in the Second World War.

At best, they compare the Job Guarantee to compulsory National Service of the sort celebrated in the stamp shown here (as with all these articles, there is more information ‘behind’ the image).

Fortunately, not everyone falls back on ‘fascist’ when they run out of argument in a discussion about the Job Guarantee. There are, however, quite a few people who think that the Job Guarantee is a disguised form of Workfare. But anyone who compares the MMT Job Guarantee to Workfare (where the unemployed are forced to work for their benefits) is most likely making a category error. That’s because there are no unemployed when there is a Job Guarantee in place.

According to the standard definition, to be unemployed you have to be actively seeking work and unable to find it. I would argue that last bit should be ‘unable to find work which suits you and which is near where you live’. The Job Guarantee provides suitable work near your home, so you can never be involuntarily unemployed.

Ideally, the Job Guarantee should also replace pretty much the entire UK benefits system, one which is no longer fit for purpose. Without unemployment and without benefits the concept of Workfare is meaningless — there won’t be any benefits for which you can be forced to work. But there will be Living Income wages if you choose to work.

The last two paragraphs define the Job Guarantee from the perspective of those who want a job (the macroeconomic perspective is different) and it would be great if we could leave it at that. Unfortunately, there are some people who are new to MMT, particularly those who consider themselves to be progressives, who are suspicious of the Job Guarantee. Their suspicion will be characterised by a lot of whataboutery. Here’s a small selection of the concerns I have heard:

  • What about people with disabilities?
  • What about people with profound disabilities?
  • What about people who want to concentrate on finding a job outside the Job Guarantee?
  • What about people who want to start their own business?
  • What about people who want to start a workers’ co-op?
  • What about holidays?
  • What about joining a union?
  • What about people with little education?
  • What about people with lots of education?
  • What about all those layabouts and shirkers?
  • What about people who don’t like the Job Guarantee job they are offered?
  • What about all the volunteer work which I currently undertake?
  • What about people who want to retrain or go to university?
  • What about paying my rent?
  • What about getting a mortgage?
  • What about someone recently released from prison?
  • What about someone who doesn’t want to work full time?
  • What about the homeless?
  • What about the problems of substance use?
  • What about mental health issues?
  • What about someone who wants another job as well?
  • What about moving to a different town?
  • What about British citizens living abroad?
  • What about EU citizens living in the UK?
  • What about undocumented immigrants?
  • What about single parents?
  • What about couples who have children?
  • What about pensions?
  • What about those who don’t speak English?
  • What about someone who cares for elderly relatives?
  • What about people who care for older children with disabilities?

As you can see, there is a lot that needs to be addressed before the Job Guarantee becomes acceptable to everyone. Over the coming months I am going to attempt to construct answers to these questions. Fortunately, none is particularly difficult.

One thing is clear from the responses: The Job Guarantee gets people talking about the disadvantaged, the dispossessed and the disenfranchised. The Job Guarantee highlights the injustices which the current social security system isn’t very good at dealing with and which, in many cases, it just sweeps under the carpet.

Conflating the Job Guarantee with Workfare is certainly to be expected, particularly given the present arrangements for what used to be called Unemployment Benefit. Under the current system, what was once classed as a ‘benefit’ has become an ‘allowance’, paid as part of a contractual arrangement with state under which the recipient is duty-bound to spend 35 hours each week engaged in essentially meaningless ‘work’ (honing CVs and searching for non-existent jobs). That is Workfare.

And many will see the Job Guarantee as a sinister attempt to resurrect or extend the various ‘work experience’ schemes favoured by the government.2 Nobody wants to end up stacking shelves at Poundland for £72 a week.3

Another problem for us in the UK is some of the descriptions of the Job Guarantee as it pertains to the United States. Proponents of MMT in the US have to be careful that they are not seen as part of a communist conspiracy to increase the size of the public sector. That’s why a Job Guarantee job is usually seen as a transition to a ‘proper’ job in the private sector and why the scheme is billed as support for capitalism (by increasing the spending power of consumers). The constraints the Job Guarantee will put on the private sector are rarely mentioned.

There is an awful lot of work to be done to allay people’s fears and there is a long way to go before the Job Guarantee becomes the obvious alternative to the current system. Here are a few key points which I think need to be made at the start of any conversation (and no doubt many times during the conversation):

  • The Job Guarantee is not some sort of Kampuchean Year Zero solution; nobody is going to be forced to work. But if you want a Job Guarantee job then it’s your right to have one, no matter who you are or where you live.
  • The Job Guarantee will provide a Living Income, not a Basic Income. The level of that income will reflect what society regards as a reasonable minimum standard of living for someone who is working full time. It has to be an amount which allows someone to have that standard of living without having to rely on benefits (and that includes tax credits and housing benefit). It is going to have to be in the region of £19,500 per year, i.e. £10 per hour for a 37½ hour week.
  • You will be entitled to a Job Guarantee job even if you are currently employed, so the private sector will be forced to improve their pay offers and conditions of service to at least match the Job Guarantee.
  • The jobs should never be seen as somehow second class or be compared to ‘digging holes and filling them in again’. They are public sector jobs which are just as important as any other jobs in the public sector. They are not low status jobs.
  • The jobs will involve meaningful and useful activities which further the public purpose. This will include activities which are not currently seen as ‘work’, so the definition of work will change.
  • People will be offered jobs which suit them and if one isn’t available we will have to create one which does. There will be low skilled manual jobs; there will be jobs for highly skilled programmers; there will be jobs for people with disabilities.
  • The only difference between Job Guarantee jobs and other public sector jobs is that there are no pay scales or pay progression for long service. But that doesn’t mean they should not be seen as merely ‘transition jobs’. It’s absolutely fine if someone wants to stay in the same Job Guarantee job for many years.

Finally, there is one further question which I get asked and which I didn’t include in the list of whataboutery:

  • What about someone who just doesn’t want to work?

This is another category error. It’s not really a question about the Job Guarantee and the answer is, of course, ‘No problem, they don’t have to work’.

It’s not necessarily a satisfactory answer because anyone who asks this question probably believes that the state should provide an income to people who have no other means of support and who don’t want to take up the offer of a Job Guarantee job. They are making a case for a non-Universal Basic Income and because of the very high housing costs in the UK it is going to be quite a substantial amount of money.

Call me old fashioned (or an old fascist), but I don’t think many people would vote for that.

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1. See Dame Margaret Hodge: Labour investigation made me think about ‘being a Jew in Germany’, 17 August 2018, The Jewish Chronicle.
2. See the List of Workfare Schemes, Boycott Workfare.
3. See Poundland ‘gets jobless to work for free under government scheme’, 30 August 2017, The Guardian.