What Happens When Jobs Are Guaranteed?

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Other participants had experienced something similar. Adnan Rizvanovic, a Bosnian man in his early sixties who now works as a gardener for the program, had once driven trucks and taxis and held a job in logistics. Pay for drivers plummeted after Uber and its local Austrian competitors entered the taxi market; after two heart attacks, Rizvanovic decided that he’d better stay off the road, lest he have another and crash. “I was psychologically destroyed,” he told me, of being suddenly unemployed. “If you have worked your whole life, even with a lot of stress, then suddenly you have nothing to do, you think that you are not needed anymore,” he said. “You have your breakfast, and then—what am I going to do all day?” He applied to dozens of jobs without success and began to lose hope. “At this age, after two heart attacks, it’s impossible,” he said. “Once they hear a certain age, it’s no way.” He began staying up all night, binge-watching basketball games. His daughter got him a dog so that he would leave the house more often.

Through the Job Guarantee, Rizvanovic worked twenty hours a week doing light gardening. “It’s nice. It’s slow. You have time to think when you water the flowers. It’s like meditation,” he said, gesturing at the plants around us. He was sleeping better and watching less TV. He enjoyed seeing other people at work every day, and could take breaks whenever he was getting tired—something that his cardiologist says is important. Before the war in Bosnia forced him to leave for Austria, in the nineteen-nineties, he studied philosophy and law at university. “When I’m watering the flowers, I think about Sigmund Freud and Immanuel Kant and everybody,” he told me, with a wistful look.

Not every participant sees the program as a decisive improvement over unemployment benefits. A man named Gilbert—bearish, heavily tattooed, and fifty-two—told me that he had worked for decades as a technician installing and maintaining elevators before injuring his back and knee in a skiing accident. He’d enjoyed his time on unemployment, which he’d spent travelling to the Dominican Republic, riding around Austria with his motorcycle club, and fighting in raucous freestyle forest brawls that set fans of rival soccer teams against one another, before sealing the peace over beer. He wouldn’t have minded a few more years of that life, he said; still, he worked thirty hours a week in the carpentry workshop, earning a little more than two thousand euros a month. “I just want to work something for the next eight years,” he said—until he can take his pension. “If I earn my eighteen hundred or nineteen hundred, I’ll do anything—unless I really, really don’t like it.”

Critics of labor-market programs such as the Job Guarantee argue that they enable precisely this sort of choice—they make it easier to decline work that one doesn’t like. One program participant in his thirties told me that, while on unemployment benefits, he’d been offered a job cleaning toilets at a gas station; he’d decided that he didn’t want “that sort of job,” and had instead found work in the carpentry workshop. If everyone were guaranteed a reasonably pleasant job, suited to their interests and needs and paying a living wage, who would do the grungy, difficult work? Austrian employers, like those in America, are currently having difficulty hiring people to take hard, poorly paid jobs; many of the workers in Austria who wash dishes or clean hotel rooms are immigrants from Eastern Europe, and during the pandemic many of them went home, some for good. Jörg Flecker, a sociologist at the University of Vienna who is evaluating the program in Gramatneusiedl, told me that pressure from employers could prevent its expansion across Austria. “Employers say, ‘There are so many unemployed. We have to have a tougher regime for them because we have jobs to fill.’ ”

Lukas Lehner and Maximilian Kasy, economists at Oxford who are evaluating data from Gramatneusiedl, argue that competition with the private sector is a good thing. “I think, from an economic perspective, that argument doesn’t make much sense,” Kasy said, of the dirty-jobs view. “If they’re shit jobs, try to pay them as well as possible. Try to change the working conditions as much as possible until you reach the point that somebody wants to do them, or automate them if you can. And then, if nobody wants to do them, maybe we shouldn’t do them.” Kasy thinks that an important function of initiatives like job guarantees—and of universal basic incomes—is to improve the bargaining positions of people who want to change their lives. “Whether it’s abuse from an employment relationship, a bureaucrat in the welfare state, or a romantic relationship, the question is, What’s your outside option?” he said. “Having the safety of the basic income or a guaranteed job improves your outside option. If your boss is abusive, or doesn’t respect your hours, or is harassing you or whatever, you have the option to say no.”

I met Denise Berger in Gramatneusiedl, and she said she had faced exactly this sort of situation. For years, she’d been sexually abused by her stepfather; the psychological effects caused her to struggle in her job at a pastry shop. She lost her position, but was unable to move out of her parents’ home. Through the Job Guarantee, she worked twenty hours a week cleaning at a kindergarten, and she could afford her own small apartment, where she lived with her two dogs. Her brothers, she said, had been harshly critical of her inability to find a job: “You’re stupid, you’re kind of a bad person, you don’t have a job, so you’re good for nothing,” she recalled them saying. That changed during the pandemic, when two of them also lost work. Nothing challenges stereotypes about the unemployed, she told me, like becoming one of them.

Unemployment in Austria, as in many Western countries, has been rising gradually for decades. In 2021, the official figure was eight per cent. This likely understates the real number of unemployed people; as in the United States, Austria’s official statistics don’t account for those who have simply stopped looking for work. Unwanted joblessness is fairly common. And yet the stigma faced by the long-term unemployed is powerful. Flecker, the sociologist, has noticed that Job Guarantee participants are often eager to show that they’re not typical unemployed people. “They say, ‘Oh, well, I’m not like the others. I have a special role here,’ ” he told me. Many of the participants I spoke with noted that they were in the group who wanted to work, whereas some others in the program were, as they put it, lazy free riders.

On my last day in Gramatneusiedl, I had coffee with Thomas Schwab, its mayor, at the Job Guarantee headquarters. An older man who speaks with a cautious, professorial air, Schwab wrote his master’s thesis on the original Marienthal study; he sees the current project against this historical background. “Maybe you know about Adam Smith, and these guys who say that the market is always right,” he said. “If you don’t find a job, then just work for less money. But that’s completely wrong! If I have no jobs in my company, there can be a thousand people outside, and they could say, like in the nineteen-thirties, ‘I will work just for something to eat.’ Did they find a job? They didn’t find a job, because nobody had a job to offer.”

Sven Hergovich, the regional director of the Public Employment Service of Lower Austria, essentially agrees with this analysis. He thinks that rising demands for productivity and efficiency mean that, now and in the future, not everyone will be able to find a job without support. “There are not sufficient jobs available for all of the long-term unemployed,” he told me. “In fact, we have only two options. Either we finance long-term unemployment, or we create a job guarantee.”

Ultimately, the perceived success of any job-guarantee program depends on what you think its goals should be. Kasy, the Oxford economist, thinks that there are three factors we ought to consider. Are people doing better on objective and subjective measures of well-being? Do they participate voluntarily? And does the program cost roughly the same as, or less than, current unemployment benefits? He and his colleagues studied the Gramatneusiedl program using a randomized controlled trial, in which waves of participants who started at different times were compared against one another, against a statistical composite of similar unemployed people from similar towns in Austria that lack a job guarantee, and against other factors. So far, on a broad range of dimensions—symptoms of anxiety or depression, a sense of social inclusion, social status, financial security, and so on—the improvements in participants’ lives are statistically significant. Kasy noted that the Job Guarantee costs no more per person than unemployment benefits. “It comes for free, people choose it voluntarily, and they feel like they’re better off—you would think that’s a slam dunk,” he said.

If the aim of job-guarantee programs is to transition all participants to private-sector jobs, or to dramatically cut unemployment spending, they may be hard to defend. But, if the goals are to improve people’s physical and mental health, to perform a range of tasks in a community, and to move some participants back to the private sector, then prospects look more promising. Since my visit to Gramatneusiedl, many of the participants have transitioned out of the program to other jobs. Karl Blaha, of the shoe emporium, is now a facility manager for a private logistics and transport company. Gilbert, of the forest brawls, is a restaurant manager.

And there are other, broader ways in which such programs can benefit society. Unemployment and despair are hardly the only causes of political extremism, but scholars have perceived a connection between these factors in multiple places and time periods. Before leaving Gramatneusiedl, I visited its historical museum, a quiet one-room building just off the main road. Inside, photographs from the early twentieth century showed musicians with fiddles and accordions, villagers picnicking in a garden with top hats and glasses of wine, and rows of young men in wrestling uniforms, crossing burly arms. By the early nineteen-thirties, however, the mood had shifted. Men lounged on a street corner, hands in pockets, gazes downcast; workers took sledgehammers to the old factory, destroying the place where they used to work. Within a few more years, a burst of activity again animated the town. Nazism had arrived. Pictures showed a parade, banners, bustling crowds—and, draped across the lectern of a man addressing the villagers, a swastika. ♦

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