As Requested: Job Insurance: A Blueprint For Full Employment

Note: This is a cross-post from my group blog, The Realignnment Project.

This is a more thorough examination of the job insurance concept, done on a national level, but you can easily scale it to California or any other state. 


In my previous posts about unemployment insurance reform and 50-state Keynesianism, I made brief reference to something called “job insurance.” Several people requested a fuller explanation, which is only fair considering that I had rather tacked on the idea without fully developing what I meant.

So here is a blueprint for how job insurance is supposed to work, as a major solution to the problem of declining job growth and increasing economic insecurity. To start with, let me explain what job insurance is not – it is not the temporary “transition trade assistance” (inadequate and ill-conceived at the best of times) referred to by most workers as “burial insurance.” It’s not the “wage insurance” that semi-penitent neoliberals have dreamed up to compensate for the fact that the new jobs being created by their post-industrial economic order pay less than the blue collar factory jobs of the past.

What job insurance is, in reality, is the missing link in our Social Security system.


Background – The Committee on Economic Security, 1934

As I discussed previously, the idea that the current Social Security system was handed down on granite tablets from on high is quite wrong. As with any piece of legislation, the Social Security system emerged as a compromise measure from a series of competing alternatives, one of which was an idea for job insurance, developed by the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) staffers who were alumni from the Civil Works Administration (which had employed 4.27 million men for the previous six months) and who would go on to lead the Works Progress Administration (WPA). They proposed “three different systems of “job insurance:” option one “involves the use of contributions for protections against unemployment for a work program — employment not restricted to those making the payments. This conception regards the funds collected as an additional source of revenue collected and is based on the belief that employees will willingly make payments in return for the protection offered them by a large work program when unemployed,” essentially replacing unemployment insurance altogether, while combining contributions from a payroll tax with general Federal funding. Option two contemplated “wages on a work program as a means of paying all unemployment benefits,” in which a public job would be “a matter of contractual right to…wages paid for work performed.” Option three envisioned a combination of UI with job insurance, in which workers who exhausted their limited UI benefits would then become eligible for a public job, dividing responsibilities between short-term and long-term insurance.”

At the heart of their arguments for why Job Insurance would be superior to Unemployment Insurance was an understanding of the social meaning of work. It’s not something we think of very much, but work is a central part of our modern identities – the first question you’re likely to ask someone when you meet them (after their name) is the ubiquitous “so what do you?” Our social status is highly determined by the kind of work we do – do we do manual work or work in an office? Are we classified as unskilled worker or professionals? Do our wages allow us to afford a “middle class” lifestyle? Beyond this, even in our politics, we associate being a good worker as being a good citizen, productive, taxpaying, self-providing, and those who do not work are labeled implicitly as bad citizens. The welfare cheat, the malingerer who fakes injury to get on worker’s comp, the deadbeat debtor – these are the stock characters of our modern morality plays.

And as social investigators like E. White Bakke in the United States or William Beveridge in the U.K demonstrated, and as the FERA administrators as former social workers turned welfare bureaucrats knew intimately, there is a social disconnection and degradation that comes from unemployment, even if you have unemployment insurance.  Think about how your work structures your life – you wake up in the morning at a time designated by your commute, you read the morning paper to learn about things going on that might be relevant to your life, you make your commute and engage in a mass experience, surrounded by thousands of other people doing the exact thing whether you’re walking down the sidewalk, sitting on the train or the subway, or stuck in traffic on the freeway. And this is where our public is created, with the flash of the morning headline, with the chatter of pamphleteers and the railing of drive-time radio hosts, a sensation of being part of the world. Then you arrive at work, and you’re again part of a group. The workplace, with its office gossip and politics, with friends and enemies and acquaintances all jostling alongside , the idle chatter around the coffee machine or the water cooler, a shared smoke or lunch – this is where solidarity begins, where you develop an identity of yourself as a worker.

To be cut off from that is to be left behind as residential neighborhoods empty out. As Beveridge put it, “The worse thing we can do to an unemployed man is to heap indignity upon indignity, because the loss of work in itself is a bad thing. I have seen fine, brave men reduced by continuous, enforced unemployment to a state in which they feel they are forgotten, unwanted, thrown on the scrap heap.”

So in 1934, the expert-activists of FERA tried their level best to give the unemployed more than just a check. For eight years, until 1943, they were brilliantly successful. In 1945-6, they came within an inch of making their endeavor permanent.

A Proposed System of Job Insurance:

In 2009, we could finish the job.Here’s how.

The Concept In a Nutshell – to establish a permanent fiscal structure for public employment programs, provide workers with the genuine protection against economic crisis, and move towards the ultimate goal of the government serving as “employer of last resort” in times of crisis. How to Finance It – a $20 per month contribution, split 50-50 between employer and employee, from all 150 million people in the American workforce would generate $36 billion per year (roughly the equivalent needed to directly create 1 million jobs), which in good times could be saved in a Job Insurance Fund operated by the Federal Government (probably by the Social Security Administration, since they already know how and would avoid duplication). This $36 billion, if saved over five good years, would turn into $180 billion, which is enough to put 4.5 million unemployed back to work and probably a sufficient reserve level that could be spent in times of rising unemployment and cover all but the most extreme of job losses, even without additional Federal contribution (a Federal contribution of $18 billion a year, for example, would reduce the premiums to $10 a month, or provide for a full reserve in three years rather than five).

Scenario – Implementing It Now: Obviously, in our current recession, we lack the time necessary to build up a reserve at the same time as we have lost more than five million jobs. In order to reverse our current job losses and bring unemployment down from 9.5% (officially) to 6%, we’d need to spend $200 billion to put those five million newly unemployed to work for a year. However, with a job insurance system, you could pay that off in 10-11 years (if the fund payed back the government at $18 billion a year, allowing it to continue building up funds), making a potential Jobs Bill deficit-neutral. In this scenario, it would still be useful for the Federal government to kick in $18 billion a year to keep the Job Insurance Fund filling up on pace.

What Do You Get for $20: in return for $20 a month, you would get the right to a public job at any point in the future when you were laid off. This job would pay about $20-24k a year, with a six month contract (renewable if, after a job search at the end of  six months, you’re unable to find a new job). That’s not great, but it is enough to keep a family out of poverty, especially if there’s a second earner. Eligibility would be automatic the week after your last FICA payment, and application for a job should be convenient, consisting of no more than a questionnaire about your work experience and skills that could be done over a toll-free call, or over the Internet, or at any government office. In most recessions, you should be able to move directly from your previous job to your new job, but even in a very sudden and sharp recession, you could give people work in some fair fashion (order of date of unemployment, random lottery, order of application, etc.) and people would have UI to cover the temporary gap.

Economic Impact – Job Insurance would thus function as a new “automatic stabilizer,” kicking in at any time when when a recession pushes unemployment above some level determined by our democratically-elected government as acceptable – 4% has been considered a healthy rate for the last twenty years, but we could probably follow Beveridge’s suggestion of 3% or less as “full employment.” When this rise in unemployment occurred, the Job Insurance Reserve would begin to release funds to be spent employing workers on public projects, in step with the pace of layoffs to prevent a sudden surge of layoffs and the attendant drop-off in demand.  In most recessions, if it was able to act in a timely fashion and catch the economy in the early stage of a recession, you probably wouldn’t need to hire more than 2-3 million people. The resulting Keynesian stimulus from new wages as well as the strong market signal sent to retailers and their suppliers should be able to either avert an oncoming recession, or at least make it shallow and short enough for more traditional Keynesian methods to be applied in a less dire scenario than they were in January 2009.  As the economy improved, the six-month term and required job search could be used to gradually downshift the number of public employment project workers at less than the speed of job growth (an important point, you don’t want to see another 1937).

In essence, what job insurance would create is a new social contract, both between citizens and the government, and among citizens. The individual worker is assured of protection from unemployment as long as they contribute to the fund and are willing to work in return for their paycheck; the society is assured that the government will provide for full employment and full economic growth. And citizens, both the employed paying in their contributions and the unemployed working for their paycheck, will assure the other that their monthly contributions will serve, not only to protect them against job loss, but will also enlarge the commonwealth and beautify the public square.

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