For the past year, Albuquerque has been experimenting with a pilot jobs program for its homeless population called “There’s a Better Way.” The initiative began as a push to connect the homeless with shelters and other assistance providers, but within a few months of its launch, the city also started offering needy residents $9 an hour to perform menial labor such as cleaning up litter. The program also offers lunch and overnight shelter to participants.
Now “There’s a Better Way” is expanding to offer more work, and receiving a bit of national attention in the process. The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, and CityLab have all run laudatory articles over the past couple of weeks, and other cities are reportedly keen to emulate Albuquerque model. According to the Post, Mayor Richard Berry reported that “dozens” of municipalities have contacted his administration to learn how they might implement similar programs.
It’s worth noting that access to temporary “Better Way” jobs is currently limited. There are only so many seats on the “Better Way” van, and the van itself operates just twice a week (though it will soon be in operation four out of seven days). But it’s not hard to envision a more robust and heavily resourced version of the program, in which just about any homeless Albuquerque resident can find temporary public sector work if he or she wants it.
This version of the policy would resemble something close to a job guarantee targeted specifically at Albuquerque’s homeless population. At the very least, expanding the “Better Way” model could test out some of a job guarantee’s purported advantages.
For those unfamiliar with the term, a job guarantee is exactly what it sounds like: A blanket offer of public sector employment to any unemployed, able-bodied adults who want it. Academics like Duke public policy expert Sandy Darity and Bard economist Pavlina Tcherneva have been studying the proposal for years, but it hasn’t quite captured the public’s attention like, say, recent calls for a universal basic income. Nonetheless, I think there are some good reasons we might prefer an employment program to unconditional cash transfers, and Albuquerque’s experience showcases them nicely.
First off, gainful employment confers tremendous psychological benefits. Communal work reduces social isolation and provides some structure to the day. It can also provide a sense of purpose, a certainty that one is contributing something valuable to one’s own community. The lack of that structure, purpose, and social identity can be profoundly damaging, which is why, as the World Health Organization and International Labor Organization observe, “[r]e-employment has been shown to be one of the most effective ways of promoting the mental health of the unemployed."
Some of the participants in the “Better Way” program seem to appreciate being given an opportunity to work. One beneficiary told Upworthy: "I’m not the type of person that really likes to ask people for money. I’d rather earn it.” And experiments with similar programs abroad corroborate those anecdotal findings.
When Argentina implemented the public employment campaign known as Jefes in 2002, participants reported they were glad for the sense of purpose the job gave them. A survey conducted by Argentina’s Ministry of Labor found that approximately 85% of Jefes participants were either “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with the program; when asked why they were satisfied, the number one answer respondents gave was, “I can do something.” The second and third answers were, respectively, “I work in a good environment” and, “I help the community."
When participants in these programs say they feel helpful, they’re not laboring under an illusion. Programs like “Better Way” are also pretty good at allocating workers to where they’re needed. In the case of the Albuquerque program, the typically means asking the homeless to do urban beautification jobs, such as clearing brush and picking up trash. New Deal-era programs like the WPA and the National Youth Administration provide an even more potent example of how much beneficial work can be done as a result of public employment initiatives.
And there’s a lot of work that absolutely needs to be done as soon as possible. By one estimate, cited in a recent Bill McKibben piece for The New Republic, "America needs 295 solar factories of a similar size to defeat climate change — roughly six per state — plus a similar effort for wind turbines.” Whether the jobs in those factories are public sector or not, state and local governments will surely need additional employees to upgrade infrastructure and install new energy sources over the coming years.
Allocating labor on that scale would require something far more ambitious than the “Better Way” program. But the success of Albuquerque’s experiment, and its apparent popularity, suggest that more ambitious job creation programs aren’t out of the question. They could even attract a modicum of bipartisan support in some places; after all, “Better Way” was implemented by a Republican administration.
It should be noted that job guarantees are no substitute for a vibrant safety net. People who are unable to work should be cared for, and voluntary abandonment of the labor force should not be punished with hunger and homelessness. Crucially, “Better Way” offers food and shelter to Albuquerque’s homeless regardless of whether or not they agree to work temporary jobs. But for those who do want to work — and are able to do so — there’s work available.