Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) is about to announce a new proposal that would guarantee a job to every American worker “who wants or needs one,” according to the Washington Post. Details are scarce, as Sanders has not identified a funding source and the Congressional Budget Office has not provided a cost estimate. But the Sanders’ office stated that the new jobs would pay $15 an hour and offer a range of benefits such as health care.
Under the Sanders proposal, local, state and tribal governments would send suggestions for public works projects to one of the 12 U.S. Labor Department regional offices. These regional hubs would then sift through the list and send recommended projects to a new dedicated central office housed within the Labor Department.
Would people flock to the new program due to the high wages, or due to the economy entering a recession and leaving workers with bleaker private job prospects? In the latter case, the Jobs Guarantee program would need to quickly find jobs for a rapid and substantial increase in participants.
The specific types of jobs that would be funded through the projects are only mentioned in the broad categories of “infrastructure, caregiving, the environment, education and other goals.” We can also look to similar recent proposals for a sense of what types of jobs would be offered.
One study from economists at the left-leaning Levy Economics Institute at Bard College mentions projects from caring for the elderly or after-school programs, small-scale infrastructure projects such as adding bike lanes, to environmentally-focused projects such as soil erosion and flood control. In another proposal, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities mentions activities such as the “repair, maintenance, and expansion of the nation's infrastructure.” Infrastructure also features prominently in the report from the Center for American Progress.
No matter that a new report from the Department of Labor’s Office of Inspector General has shown that the Job Corps programs, which attempt to connect young adults to employment through training and vocational education, have been notoriously unsuccessful. For this $1.7 billion program, more than half of the participants sampled in the report did not have a beneficial outcome, and documentation throughout the program was so poor in many cases it was difficult to determine what was actually happening.
Leaving aside for a moment questions about the cost and disruption of the private sector, among other obstacles, the proposal would run into significant problems connecting participants to readily-available jobs, particularly in infrastructure.
Aside from a skills mismatch for workers and these infrastructure-related jobs, the government would not be able to promptly fund or create a bevy of major infrastructure projects that could accommodate a significant influx of participants due to the lengthy review and permitting process.
As President Obama opined in a 2010 interview regarding the effectiveness of his stimulus package that was supposed to funnel billions of dollars to infrastructure and public works, “there’s no such thing as shovel-ready projects.” Minor projects such as adding bike lanes might be able to qualify for accelerated review that gets reviewed and approved in a matter of days, but average review times for the largest and most complex projects often takes years.
The average review time for the major projects was 5.1 years for those completed in 2016, compared to 3 years in 2000. Only 17 percent of reviews were finished within two years.
This does not factor in the additional layers of bureaucracy that would be needed for projects to qualify for the Job Guarantee program.
It takes time for state, local, and tribal governments to develop their own proposals to be submitted to their regional hub. Different competing interest groups with different priorities will jostle to have their pet projects included.
The regional offices would then have to sort through these proposals. These hubs might have to ask for supplemental information, suggest alternatives, or allow for public comments. All of this would take time, and winding through this process could take months or even years.
The new office in the Department of Labor would add another layer of bureaucracy tasked with identifying which projects should be approved.
What happens if a dispute or disagreement regarding one of the proposed projects should arise? The dispute resolution process within infrastructure has long suffered from significant shortcomings that are only now perhaps finally starting to be addressed. It is possible that this new framework would somehow escape the problems that plague government efforts across a range of policy areas and activities, but these potential problems cannot be waved away.
The forthcoming Sanders Jobs Guarantee proposal is light on details, but based on previous proposals it is likely that infrastructure projects and public works would be relied upon to absorb a significant share of the participants. Even setting aside the other objections related to costs or requisite skills, the logistical and bureaucratic challenges that this would pose would be immense. Lengthy review and permitting completion times would make it difficult, if not impossible, for enough infrastructure projects to be approved to serve as an outlet for the amount of people required under a Jobs Guarantee program.
Charles Hughes is a policy analyst at the Manhattan Institute. Follow him on Twitter @CharlesHHughes.
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