Universal basic income as a 'fix' for poverty/unemployment seems to get passed around now and again in the west, but doesn't seem to ever have even a remote chance of being implemented outside of limited 'test' cases. The primary argument I often hear against UBI is that it is that if your basic needs are taken care of, there is no longer an incentive to work/contribute to society. Depending on how many people 'opt out' of working in comparison to the ones actually paying for UBI, there's the distinct possibility that such a system would go bankrupt over time as well.

Which brings me to 'why doesn't the government act as the employer of last resort' IE: a Job Guarantee program? The only historical examples that come to mind are the depression era "New Deal", or more recent, but not implemented https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Humphrey-Hawkins_Full_Employment_Act (In the united states), and workhouses (In the UK).

It seems like this would be something that would appeal to a wider swath of the voting public, welfare in the form of working more palatable than a straight handout for most conservative voters that I've spoken with.

To my knowledge, neither of the major parties in the United States at least are pushing for anything like this, and I'm not familiar enough with other country's political parties to say if that's true elsewhere. However, I see far more discourse in regards to UBI, and can't remember the last time a policy like the above has been mentioned in the news for example.

It seems more of a dichotomy between no strings welfare, and 'ask for voluntary charity'. Is there some tangible reason that this middle of the road solution doesn't seem to have gained any traction, some powerful interest that lobbies hard against it?

  • 20
    “No incentive to work” might be frequently heard but that's mostly a superficial argument appealing to those who have no idea what they are talking about. A more serious challenge for universal basic income is making the maths work, i.e. funding a reasonably high basic income without massive new taxes and/or making those who currently receive means-tested welfare benefits worse off.
    – Relaxed
    Commented Oct 23, 2017 at 19:31
  • 19
    So you guarantee a job, then that person just goofs off or never even shows up. Do they still get paid? Are they still guaranteed a job? Depending on the answers, it's not that different. Commented Oct 23, 2017 at 20:33
  • 7
    The New Deal was anything but a job guarantee program. It was the New Deal that led to the saying, "that's great work, if you can get it." Long lines, relatively few jobs. The ones who did get hired were paid relatively well. On top of that, the New Deal extended the effects of the Great Depression by many years. Commented Oct 23, 2017 at 21:55
  • 14
    @Craig - re "New Deal extended the effects of the Great Depression by many years" - Keynesian economists would disagree. It is unsubstantiated political statement, not a fact. Commented Oct 23, 2017 at 21:59
  • 9
    @blip - I see you met some of my fellow software programmer co-workers :)
    – user4012
    Commented Oct 24, 2017 at 0:29

5 Answers 5


There is no single conclusive "why" other than the boring and inane "because nobody enacted such laws... Because there is not enough political support compared to opposition for such a thing".

However, it's worth looking into the plausible arguments against such a program, of which I can list several:

  1. Some people objectively can't work.

    They are disabled, or take care of small children (I personally disagree with the latter but the argument can be and is made).

  2. Deciding between those who objectively can't work and those who merely make excuses is nearly impossible.

    I have friends who work in staffing for low paying menial jobs, and am familiar from them with the issues facing such employers in deciding when someone genuinely is taking days off vs. pulling a Ferris Bueller, e.g. refusing to work by pretending to be sick or other excuses). As such, you're faced with one of two bad options - either force everyone to work (won't fly politically due to #1 above), or suffer massive Buellering by those who abuse the system.

  3. In some cases, there's just no economic sense to create such make-work - the cost of employing someone may very well exceed the value of the labor they will provide.

    In 1930s, you could legitimately extract value from people digging ditches with shovels.

    In 2010, you need 1 person with advanced training (which many if not most of unemployed lack) to run a modern industrial machine to dig ditches, and it would cost far more to employ 1000 manual digger that the machine replaced.

  4. Reinforcing the last bullet, employing someone is costly; so the economics of this is even worse:

    • You need to spend effort and time (and thus money) on training. Up that due to a large part of unemployed "work" force not even having rudimentary reading level, which is unfortunately common these days in USA.

    • You need to hire and pay all the workforce overhead - supervisors, planners, HR, finance, etc...

    • You need to pay for workplaces, work tools, etc...

    • You need to pay for insurance (what if someone in your work force slips and injures themselves? What if they slip and injure an innocent bystander? What if they build a shoddy road that cracks and kills a driver one week later?)

  5. One of the main benefits of UBI is that it allows people receiving it to look for better jobs.

    If you take that away by forcing them into full time menial employment, you remove one of the main benefits of UBI. They won't have time/energy to find a job of their own in private sector.

  6. It's generally not very politically popular with a large proportion of population, especially in more left wing countries that are social-democratic.

  7. Central planning rarely works well.

    If you subsidize work X, you will be distorting the market (for example, see military-industrial complex, or ethanol corn farming, or Jones Act which is just basically a jobs program for sailors and shipbuilders in Warshington/Oregon. IIRC research estimated that the cost of Jones act is $250K/year per job saved in those two industries).

  • 5
    Would you consider backing-up this answer? There is a good list of possible answers, but no evidence that any of them are correct. Commented Oct 23, 2017 at 20:04
  • 1
    Do you have some sources for point 6? In my memory, the promise of full employment has historically been one of the (utopian/far) left and it is the extreme opposite of the laissez-faire on the political right.
    – gerrit
    Commented Oct 24, 2017 at 11:35
  • 1
    @user4012 Just a note, the Jones Act probably as a side effect could be considered a jobs program, but that wasn't it's original purpose. I'd even argue that it still isn't, it came about as a result of WW1, when we were suddenly left without enough merchant vessels for our needs (when other countries pulled theirs away to deal with the war). Commented Oct 24, 2017 at 12:33
  • 8
    Taking care of small children is work. Its just often unpaid (directly. Indirectly it allows other adults in the child's family to work, so it does bring in money). I could see an argument that if that's work you want to perform, you should be in some kind of daycare center rather than inefficiently taking care of only one or two of them.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Oct 24, 2017 at 13:49
  • 6
    @T.E.D. - "work" here is shorthand for "labour performed for compensation", not "effort". Marginalist theory of value, not Marx's Labor theory of value, to be more academic :)
    – user4012
    Commented Oct 24, 2017 at 14:00

Political thinking

Current western political thinking tends to be in favour of free market economics and austerity as general principles. from this perspective the following issues arise with job guarantee

  • it is only possible to create so many jobs before either interfering with the free market too much or creating pointless non-jobs
  • Job guarantee schemes can be very expensive from your hawkins job link

The Act's sponsors embraced conventional Keynesian economics, which advocates aggressive government spending

this would obviously be incompatible with austerity

  • Employing anyone and everyone would not be economical compared with the cost of employing and training a few staff and providing relativity modern machinery for the same job hence is incompatible with austerity.

The Workhouse

Before looking at the practical issues i'm going to mention the British workhouses. While the 'workhouse' did in some ways provide the service of which you speak it would no longer be considered acceptable. The conditions were hard and tedious labour and the remuneration was poor; indeed Wikipedia refers to those in the workhouse as inmates.

wikipedia lists sample tasks as

Most were employed on tasks such as breaking stones, crushing bones to produce fertiliser, or picking oakum using a large metal nail known as a spike

and states that

Life in a workhouse was intended to be harsh, to deter the able-bodied poor and to ensure that only the truly destitute would apply

While political thinking is important it is also important to consider whether job guarantee is practical

this was presumably because they didn't make any money

Some Poor Law authorities hoped that payment for the work undertaken by the inmates would produce a profit for their workhouses, or at least allow them to be self-supporting, but whatever small income could be produced never matched the running costs

Practical issues

many of these have already been covered to some extent and covered in details in user4012's answer

  • It doesn't always make economical sense to employ a person to do a job; that is to say the cost of the person may exceed the value of the job especially if you include the cost of training
  • UBI facilitates people to get into work and better jobs where as job guarantee like the workhouse may leave you without much chance of a getting any other job
  • Guaranteeing a job to everyone regardless of how poorly qualified, incapable, unwilling or unintelligent they are could be very awkward to administer and manage and could be rather impractical.

Good answers above from the historical perspective. From a more futuristic point of view, we are near, or already at, the point where we have more labor hours available to our society than work that we want doing, and the labor surplus will only increase as robots get better at doing our jobs.

We could spread the jobs around by reducing the normal work week, but this would be unpopular with employers, who like that a labor surplus keeps the price of labor down, and a huge number of employees who already feel financially pressured working the hours they do today, and fear poverty if they work less.

  • 8
    I disagree with the premise that we have more labor hours available than people are willing to pay for. It's an oft repeated argument, but repetition does not proof make. Historically speaking, the argument has been heard when the workforce moved from fields to factories, and then again from factories to offices, and it never materialized. It seems to me that as the price of the massively produced goods cheapens, consumers look for newer goods or services to spend their money on and improve their lifestyles. Do you have serious studies demonstrating this future trend? Commented Oct 24, 2017 at 14:50
  • @MatthieuM. This here focuses on the USA: economics.mit.edu/files/12763 . I know there is a similar paper analyzing the world economy, (or more accurately, the economy of a number of countries in relation to the number of robots per thousand workers), which also comes to the same conclusion (more robots = less workers, lower wages), but I can't find it at present.
    – MKII
    Commented Oct 25, 2017 at 13:36

You are right that UBI and guaranteed employment are both policies within the same policy space (roughly employment&welfare). They could indeed be competing.

Your question is why they are not competing. The basic answer is that in most policy spaces, there is a status quo. All other policies are competing directly with that status quo, and not really against each other.

In this policy space, that is also true. The status quo is a system of unemployment benefits. UBI competes with that, and so do a guaranteed jobs scheme. But among the last two, there is no real competition. And why would there be?

This is no surprise. The existing policy has quite a few defenders, sufficient to be the status quo. UBI defenders argue against the status quo, in favor of their own policy, but they have no reason even to mention other policies in this policy space. That would just take away the attention from their UBI message.

This is of course an observation about the democratic debate, and not participation in that debate - I'm not arguing any one side here.


It mainly comes down to two reasons:

  1. Trying to cram everyone into a framework of employment is socially and economically backwards. Society does not need that amount of work done, and trying to make everybody do more work just makes the whole system a lot less efficient. When you are making people work as a condition to have the money to feed, clothe, and house themselves and their families, you spend a huge amount of overhead monitoring/verifying/enforcing that they are actually meeting the conditions established to receive their money, and that they are not doing things actively harmful to the workplace and coworkers (stealing, embezzling, misusing resources, bullying, sexual harassment, introducing health risks by not washing their hands, etc. etc. etc.). Of course you end up creating even more jobs to handle the necessary management/enforcement, but none of this is efficient. Such "job creation" is only an economic good insomuch as it prevents people from falling into extreme poverty and the economic and social consequences thereof (crime, default on debts, ...).

  2. UBI does more than just substitute for universal employment; it fixes a lot of social and economic problems that any sort of "need based" assistance can't fix, and that such assistance is even responsible for creating. Whenever you have need-based services, "proof of need" becomes in itself (a) a source of shaming and class stratification that precludes social mobility, and (b) a time and effort burden that prevents doing other useful things like taking care of one's own basic needs or looking for a job. And of course it also disincentivizes getting a job, since getting a job means losing benefits, leaving the net financial effect of getting a job either miniscule or outright negative. When everyone gets the same benefits regardless of need, nobody is judged for getting them, and everybody still has the same economic incentive to do paid work and get something better for themselves (at low to mid pay level; ideally only at high level do taxes used to pay others' UBI become a significant chunk out of earnings).

  • 1
    It's a huge thing that UBI means that taking a job, any job, means more income for you. Also a JOB guarantee program would be GUARANTEED to be viewed just as slavery as there would no point in even providing any other kind of jobs if you're GUARANTEED workers anyways. another big reason is that job guarantee schemes are essentially communism and it just doesn't work, it leads to crappy quality, stupidly spend time and so forth - like moving rocks from one side of the river to the another and then back. it just doesn't work. Commented Oct 25, 2017 at 2:55

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .