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Center for American Progress' Make-Work Scheme Needs Details

This week, the avowedly progressive Center for American Progress (CAP) unveiled a proposal to put unemployed Americans to work by…going back to New Deal-style make-work schemes.

Sounds ambitious. So how it would it work? Hard to say, as CAP’s proposal is short on details.

The proposal—grandiosely titled “Toward a Marshall Plan for America”—reads more like a campaign document than a policy proposal. The opening section focuses on analyzing the 2016 election results, apparently to make the case for Democrats to do a better job of appealing to blue-collar voters. The next section analyzes the effects of global competition and automation on the U.S. workforce.

That makes sense when it comes to selling the proposal to Democratic politicians. But the proposal itself reads like a New Deal policy wish list, recycled for the 21st century:

There are not nearly enough home care workers to aid the aged and disabled. Many working families with children under the age of 5 need access to affordable child care. Schools need teachers’ aides, and cities need EMTs. And there is no shortage of people who could do this work. What has been missing is policy that can mobilize people.

To solve this problem, we propose a large-scale, permanent program of public employment and infrastructure investment—similar to the Works Progress Administration (WPA) during the Great Depression but modernized for the 21st century. It will increase employment and wages for those without a college degree while providing needed services that are currently out of reach for lower-income households and cash-strapped state and local governments. Furthermore, some individuals may be hired into paying public jobs in which their primary duty will be to complete intensive, full-time training for high-growth, in-demand occupations. These “public apprenticeships” could include rotations with public and private entities to gain on-the-ground experience and lead to guaranteed private-sector employment upon successful completion of training.

The CAP authors propose to pay for all of this simply by not cutting taxes, while deriding tax cuts as “giveaways” to the wealthy. Unsurprisingly, they never address how government would go about allocating those resources more productively than the private sector.

These shortcomings are not just fodder for critiques from the right. The Atlantic’s Annie Lowery notes many of the CAP proposal’s shortcomings—EMT and teacher’s aide “are jobs that require a considerable amount of training and skill, and are generally long-term careers rather than temporary gigs” and “the report seems to underestimate the cost of overhead and infrastructure”—but notes that, “rather than critique the idea’s policy merits, perhaps it makes more sense to look at the CAP proposal in political terms: another sign that Democrats are moving to the left, not the center, and thinking big, not small.”

Lowery’s assessment seems right. And a debate over income inequality and job growth is worth having. But it needs more detail than CAP offers here.

For more on the inequality debate, see Iain Murray’s and Ryan Young’s two recent studies on the topic, People, Not Ratios: Why the Debate over Income Inequality Asks the Wrong Questions and The Rising Tide: Answering the Right Questions in the Inequality Debate.