The Job Guarantee Should Unite Anyone Interested in Strengthening Families

By William K. Black
Kansas City, MO     September 25, 2017

The University of Missouri – Kansas City recently hosted the first conference on Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) and a closely associated idea, a federally-backed job guarantee for everyone willing and able to work.  On September 25, 2017, the New York Times published an article exemplifying one of the applications of the job guarantee that would provide a win-win that should unite anyone interested in strengthening the family.  The title is “How Did Marriage Become a Mark of Privilege?”  Claire Cain Miller authored the column, and her key takeaway are in these two passages.

Fewer Americans are marrying over all, and whether they do so is more tied to socioeconomic status than ever before. In recent years, marriage has sharply declined among people without college degrees, while staying steady among college graduates with higher incomes.

Americans across the income spectrum still highly value marriage, sociologists have found. But while it used to be a marker of adulthood, now it is something more wait to do until the other pieces of adulthood are in place — especially financial stability. For people with less education and lower earnings, that might never happen.

These facts establish an obvious policy that could unite the public.  The combination of MMT full employment policies and the job guarantee is the best way to strengthen family financial stability.  The United States, which has a sovereign currency, can do that.  The European Union nations that lack a sovereign currency will frequently be unable to do so.  Jobs, not simply income, are essential to many humans’ happiness and sense of self-worth.  Unemployed American men, for example, do less housework than do employed American men.  Businesses are deeply reluctant to hire the unemployed, particularly if they have been unemployed for any significant time.  The cliché of males responding to unemployment through depression has considerable truth.

Miller’s article notes that there is an unproductive split between conservatives and progressives about how to strengthen families.  Conservatives tend to claim that the problem is cultural.  Progressives generally agree that culture is important but note that the surest and quickest way to make productive changes in culture is frequently economic.  Progressives oppose conservatives’ punitive and authoritarian policies that purport to change culture and note that they have failed.  Miller correctly notes that the economics and culture are closely interrelated.

Conservatives deeply resent safety net programs in which the recipients are able to work but decline to do so.  The complementary steps to run a consistent full-employment program are to follow MMT principles with an employer-of-last-resort job guarantee program.  The job guarantee does not merely guarantee that anyone willing and able to work in the government or non-profit sectors can do so; it finesses the disinclination of private sector employers to hire the unemployed.  We can provide a full employment economy with rates of inflation so low that even (very conservative) central bankers consider desirable, not simply acceptable.

The job guarantee program would also allow us to close one the great perception gulfs between progressives and Trump’s supporters.  Trumps supporters believe that disfavored minorities prefer not to work and live on the dole.  Progressives believe the opposite.  The jobs guarantee would provide the definitive test that could end any debate and replace perceptions with an easily observable reality.  The job guarantee test has the potential to do what female employment in World War II did – destroy prejudiced myths that ‘everyone’ knew were true.  It turned out that women could do a massive array of jobs and that they were interested in doing so.

The Themes of this Series of Columns

This column is the first of three related columns on the general topic of the conservatives’ culture wars in which the family is ground zero.  I develop several themes.  First, that their culture war is rests on false premises.  There are win-wins available, particularly through the job guarantee and MMT that allow great progress in strengthening the family.  Progressives would be delighted to work with conservatives to implement these winning strategies.

Second, the policies that the conservative culture warriors are pushing rest on bogus claims.  They also fail.

Third, the policies that the conservative culture warriors are pushing are nasty.  They represent authoritarian, dogmatic, and bigoted pathologies that have long disgraced America.

Fourth, the conservative culture warriors do not address most of the critical problems Americans and others face.  They religiously ignore the cultural/ethical problems of conservative elites and the Republican Party and the harm that these cultural/ethical problems inflict on Americans and the peoples and creatures of the world.  The culture warriors overwhelmingly support and assist Republicans implementing pathological policies arising from these cultural/ethical problems.  Those pathological policies channel the most disgraceful American traditions.

Fifth, the conservative culture warriors religiously refuse to join progressives and others in embracing cultural values the conservatives purport to treasure even though there is an obvious potential for broad consensus on a broad range of cultural and ethical views and policies that represent the very best of American traditions.  The conservative culture warriors are hypocrites who want a culture war that energizes the worst elements of their base even though they know that the result will be to degrade American values and practices and cause immense harm to the “other.”

Other Win-Wins We Can Implement to Strengthen Families

We could build on these win-wins by getting rid of federal subsidies to places that are not real colleges – the scores of fraudulent for-profit schools.  Fraudulent for-profit schools do not provide the benefits to employment and marriage that real public and non-profit community colleges, colleges, and universities provide.  This reform would also greatly reduce eventual losses due to student loan defaults.

Conservative culture warriors that run the Education Department are racing to prevent sanctions against these fraudulent schools.  Other conservative culture warriors applaud this obscenity.

We could create another win-win by providing real sex education (rather than the sham of “just say no”) and provide ready access to contraceptives including the morning after pill to poorer women.  All of these reforms reduce considerably births outside of wedlock.  Conservative culture warriors in the Trump administration are trying to eliminate these successful programs – and the conservative culture warriors outside the administration are cheerleaders for the travesty.

A win-win policy that has been shown to be exceptionally effective is the provision for home visits by specially trained nurses to new moms who are most at risk of being overwhelmed.  The nurses explain and demonstrate, for example, the importance of moms talking pervasively to their infants.  The Trump administration’s culture warriors targeted the program for elimination because it is successful.  Conservative culture warriors know the program works, but refuse to oppose their fellow warriors.

Even When the Culture Warriors Talk Economics They Get it Wrong

“Financial stability” is the key concept, one that “pro-marriage” cultural warriors and weak economists have repeatedly failed to comprehend.  Their typical “analysis” goes like this – if poor women would only marry their boyfriends, they would have materially larger income and only modestly larger living household expenses.  (Their analysis almost invariably purports to describe the marriage decisions of poorer, heterosexual women, so I address that context.)  The simplistic idea is that adding the male’s income to that of the poor woman means that she and her children must be better off.    The only slightly less simplistic version of this claim is that married couples tend to have stronger economic results than do the unmarried.  Both arguments ignore the most important and fundamental applicable principle of finance – risk.  Fortunately, poor women apply a more sophisticated analysis to the question of marriage than do these economists.

Risk, as most poor women understand, is the key.  It is not sufficient that the male, on the average day, would be a source of financial strength, particularly if the mother has children.  If the male does not have stable income, creates a material risk of increased expenses, or both he is a threat to financial stability that can put the mom and her child at grave risk.  One car accident while impaired or even tripping on the stairs while impaired and breaking a leg can put the household in a financial crisis.  The typical working class household has under $400 in savings.  Even if they have auto and medical insurance, the deductible plus the loss of work due to the injury or wrecking the auto can instantly hurl the household’s financial stability into a desperate crisis.  If the male’s job is unstable with material periods of unemployment or underemployment the household is made more unstable.  If the male becomes depressed when these episodes occur the financial and family instability increase greatly.

If the male has expensive tastes for non-essential goods or if he has a substance abuse problem, he makes the household more unstable financially and in terms of safety for mom and her kids.  If the male is violent or hostile towards mom or her kids, or indifferent or unreliable in providing childcare he makes the household more dangerous and unstable.

It is impossible to “hold constant” for these factors in an empirical test.  Heterosexual moms are in the best position to judge the strengths and frailties of potential male mates.  If the man is interested in marrying her, and seems to the primitive economist to add to the household’s total wealth, and she does not want to marry him the logical inference is that she has a reason for her unwillingness.  The types of risks I have explained are realistic examples of those reasons.  In statistical jargon, they represent “unobserved differences” – unobserved by the researcher who cannot “hold constant” for them, but observed by the heterosexual women making the decisions whether to marry a particular man.

The job guarantee does not eliminate many of the risks I have described.  It would improve job and income stability, particularly for working class males.  That would be unambiguously good for men, women, the economy, and our culture.  The ability to run a real world test that demonstrated that disfavored minorities do want to work could reduce bigotry and our cultural and political divisions.

In my second column in this series, I criticize Mark Regnerus’ false assertion that working class male employment stability is unrelated to women’s decisions whether to marry.  Miller’s column provides a useful corrective.

In a working paper published in July, three economists studied how the decline in manufacturing jobs from 1990 to 2014, across industries and regions, “contributed to the rapid, simultaneous decline of traditional household structures.”

Labor market changes made men less marriageable, they concluded. There were fewer available men, because unemployment was associated with a rise in incarceration or mortality from drugs and alcohol. The men who were left were less desirable, because they lacked income and were more likely to drink to excess or use drugs.

Researchers found a corresponding increase in births to unmarried mothers. The decline in marriage was not offset by more couples living together.


Never-married adults cite financial instability as a major reason for being single, especially those who are low-income or under 30, according to a new Pew Research Center survey. Most men feel it’s important for a husband to be a financial provider, especially men without college degrees, according to another new Pne ew survey.

Women, meanwhile, have learned from watching a generation of divorce that they need to be able to support themselves. And many working-class women aren’t interested in taking responsibility for a man without a job.

“They say, ‘If he’s not offering money or assets, why make it legal?’ ” said June Carbone, a law professor at the University of Minnesota and the author with Naomi Cahn of “Marriage Markets: How Inequality Is Remaking the American Family.”

(June Carbone is the inaugural holder of the Robina Chair in Law, Science and Technology at the University of Minnesota’s Law School.  She is also my spouses.)


Carbone notes that marriages in which both couples have at least college degrees have vastly lower divorce rates.  If you are in college and contemplating marriage after graduation do not assume that you are doomed to a high risk of divorce.

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