Get Ready for the Robert Reich Workfare State

"I am concerned, as I'm sure many of you are, that these jobs not simply go to high-skilled people who are already professionals or to white male construction workers."

Robert Reich, testimony to Congress on the proposed economic stimulus, January 7

This outrageous quote made the rounds of conservative media recently and was immediately followed by strong denials from Media Matters and Reich himself. Yes, he did say that, but political opponents were quoting him out of context.

His objective, he stated, was not to prevent white men from getting jobs, but to ensure that some of the jobs created via the stimulus would also go to minorities, women, the poor, and the long-term unemployed. This would help lessen unemployment and promote spending in low-income communities.

Giving government-funded jobs to the long-term unemployed? Surely Reich couldn't be advocating workfare?

But in his January 7 testimony, that's exactly what he proposed, introducing a four-point plan that required federal, state, and local stimulus-related contracts to set aside 20% of the jobs created for the poor and long-term unemployed, and also creating a new Green Jobs Corps to put low-income and low-skilled workers to work in jobs related to energy efficiency.

These programs would also have job training components, teaching individuals how to install pipes, mix and pour cement, install solar panels, and/or even advise homeowners and businesses on how to improve energy conservation. Naturally, income assistance would be provided during training.

Yes, you read that correctly. The government is planning to hire, train, and pay the long-term unemployed to come to your house and tell you how to save energy.

Absurd? Previous comments by Obama also support the goal of a vast jobs program, including his assertions that America needs a "civilian national security force that's just as powerful, just as strong, just as well-funded [as the military]," and his repeated promises to create millions of "green-collar" jobs.

The idea that the government can provide useful jobs and training to the unemployed has broad political appeal, especially across the all-important center. There's just one problem: workfare just doesn't work.

During the Great Depression, a newly inaugurated President Franklin Roosevelt tested the theory of giving away jobs to cure unemployment with the creation of the Works Progress Administration. The WPA gave jobs to more than eight million Americans, and workers were sent across the country to build roads and bridges and schools and even put on concerts and plays.

Nevertheless, unemployment remained high until the war and America sadly discovered that public-sector growth often comes at the expense of private industry. When American business was forced to compete for both work and resources with its own government, fewer jobs were created.