Last week the government finally published its impact report on Labour’s Future Jobs Fund. According to the report, two years after starting their jobs with the scheme, participants were 16 per cent less likely to be on benefits than if they had not taken part and 27 per cent more likely to be in unsubsidised employment. The net benefit to society of the scheme was £7,750 per participant, after accounting for a net cost of £3,100 to the Treasury. Not bad for a scheme condemned as a failure by the current government, and certainly better than anything that replaced it.
The Future Jobs Fund was introduced in 2009 to address the problem of long-term youth unemployment. About 100,000 people in the 18-24 age group out of work for a year or more were guaranteed a job for six months. Later the threshold was reduced to six months. An additional 50,000 guaranteed jobs were available for people of all ages in selected unemployment hotspots.
The idea of addressing long-term unemployment through job guarantees is not new. A number of such schemes were created in Depression-era America, putting young people to work in the National Parks, among other places. An economic rationale was provided by the economist Hyman Minsky. Many schemes for the unemployed focus on skills, and making people more employable, but don’t address the lack of demand for labour. Especially in times of recession and economic stagnation, the big problem is that there simply aren’t enough private sector jobs to go around. Minsky’s solution was for the state to act, in his terminology as ‘employer of last resort’, and provide work at the minimum wage (though I’d prefer to see people paid a living wage). This way the state is not competing with the private sector, merely providing a buffer in hard times.
Direct job creation schemes fell out of favour in the 1970s and 1980s, and the focus shifted to other active labour market policies. Poorly designed job creation programmes are beset by a number of serious problems. The FJF was designed after a careful study of the failure of earlier schemes, drawing on best practices from around the world, and ironing out potential faults. The scheme provided real jobs, not workfare, which created real benefits in the community, paid at the national minimum wage, with time off to look for other, unsubsidised jobs. It seems that the current government never understood the idea of transitional jobs. Anyway it was Labour’s idea, so it must have been bad, right?
Job guarantees have big advantages. For building confidence and job-readiness it’s hard to beat – the best way to prepare people for the job market is to give them a job. It is also visibly fair. Rather than leaving people idle, we are deploying our nation’s key resource in carrying out important work, be it caring in the community, working in schools, or preserving the environment. Also, boosting the incomes of people who would otherwise be unemployed constitutes a highly economic effective stimulus, one that, at a relatively low wage level, is unlikely to be inflationary. Finally, such a scheme will be cost-effective. A job guarantee is a more efficient use of money than other, broader stimulus schemes, as it is specifically targeted at a clear objective. The job guarantee is cheap for what it can achieve, far from being unaffordable.
Labour should be proud of the FJF and of its 2010 manifesto pledge to extend it to all adults out of work for two years or more. Now that the FJF has been vindicated, it’s time to reaffirm our commitment to a job guarantee, and make it a central part of a full employment policy. A robust job guarantee, once turned into an enduring institution, may not be a silver bullet for all our problems, but will go some way to addressing the misery and waste of long-term unemployment, in this downturn and in future recessions.
Tanweer Ali is a member of Progress. He tweets @Tanweer_Ali
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