Other participants had experienced something similar. Adnan Rizvanovic, a Bosnian in his 60s who now works as a gardener for the program, had once driven trucks and taxis and worked in logistics. Driver wages plummeted after Uber and its local Austrian competitors entered the taxi market; after two heart attacks, Rizvanovic decided it was best to stay off the road, lest he have another one and crash. “I was psychologically destroyed,” he told me, to be suddenly unemployed. “If you’ve worked all your life, even under a lot of stress, then suddenly you have nothing to do, you think you’re not needed anymore,” he said. “You have your breakfast, and then… what am I going to do all day?” He applied for dozens of unsuccessful jobs and began to lose hope. “At this age, after two heart attacks, it’s impossible,” he said. “Once they hear a certain age, it’s no longer possible.” He started staying up all night watching basketball games. His daughter bought him a dog to come out of the house more often.
Thanks to the job guarantee, Rizvanovic worked twenty hours a week doing light gardening. “It’s good. It’s slow. You have time to think when you water the flowers. It’s like meditation,” he said, pointing to the plants around us. He slept better and watched minus the television. He enjoyed seeing other people at work every day and could take breaks whenever he was tired, which his cardiologist says is important. Before the war in Bosnia forced him to leaving for Austria, in the 1990s, he studied philosophy and law at university. “When I water the flowers, I think of Sigmund Freud and Immanuel Kant and everyone”, told me he said, with a melancholy look.
Not all participants see the program as a decisive improvement over unemployment benefits. A man named Gilbert – bearish, heavily tattooed and fifty-two years old – told me he had worked for decades as a technician installing and maintaining elevators before he injured his back and knee in a skiing accident. He had enjoyed his unemployed time, which he had spent traveling in the Dominican Republic, touring Austria with his motorcycle club and fighting in noisy fights in the forest between fans of football teams. rival football, before sealing the peace. over beer. He wouldn’t have bothered a few more years of this life, he said; yet he worked thirty hours a week in the carpentry workshop, earning just over two thousand euros a month. “I just want to work something for the next eight years,” he said, until he can collect his pension. “If I win my one thousand eight hundred or one thousand nine hundred, I’ll do anything, unless I really don’t like it.”
Critics of labor market programs such as the job guarantee argue that they allow for precisely this type of choice – they make it easier to turn down a job you don’t like. A program participant in his thirties told me that while on unemployment benefits he was offered a job cleaning toilets at a gas station; he had decided he didn’t want “that kind of work”, and had instead found work in the carpentry shop. If everyone was guaranteed reasonably good work, suited to their interests and needs, and paying a decent wage, who would do the dirty, hard work? Austrian employers, like those in America, are currently struggling to hire people for difficult, low-paying jobs; many Austrian workers who wash dishes or clean hotel rooms are immigrants from Eastern Europe, and during the pandemic many of them have returned home, some for good. Jörg Flecker, a sociologist at the University of Vienna who is evaluating the program at Gramatneusiedl, told me that pressure from employers could prevent its expansion across Austria. “Employers say, ‘There are so many unemployed people. We need to have a tougher regime for them because we have jobs to fill. ”
Lukas Lehner and Maximilian Kasy, economists at Oxford who assess Gramatneusiedl’s data, argue that competition with the private sector is a good thing. “I think, from an economic perspective, that argument doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Kasy said, of the dirty jobs perspective. “If they’re shitty jobs, try to pay them as well as possible. Try to change the working conditions as much as possible until someone wants to do them, or automate them if you can. And then, if nobody wants to do them, maybe we shouldn’t do them. Kasy thinks an important function of initiatives like job guarantees – and universal basic incomes – is to improve the bargaining positions of people who want to change their lives. “Whether it’s abuse in a work relationship, a welfare state bureaucrat, or a romantic relationship, the question is, what’s your outside option?” he said. “Having basic income security or guaranteed employment improves your outdoor option. If your boss is abusive, or not respecting your hours, or harassing you or whatever, you have the option to say no.
I met Denise Berger in Gramatneusiedl, and she told me that she had faced exactly this kind of situation. For years, she had been sexually abused by her stepfather; the psychological effects caused her to struggle in her job at a pastry shop. She lost her job, but couldn’t leave her parents’ house. Thanks to the job guarantee, she worked twenty hours a week cleaning a kindergarten and she could afford her own small apartment, where she lived with her two dogs. Her brothers, she said, had harshly criticized her inability to find a job: “You’re stupid, you’re kind of a bad person, you don’t have a job, so you’re no good. she remembered telling them. That changed during the pandemic, when two of them also lost their jobs. Nothing challenges stereotypes about the unemployed, she told me, like becoming one of them.
Unemployment in Austria, as in many Western countries, has been rising steadily for decades. In 2021, the official figure was 8%. This probably underestimates the actual number of unemployed; as in the United States, Austria’s official statistics do not take into account those who have simply stopped looking for work. Unwanted unemployment is quite common. And yet, the stigma faced by the long-term unemployed is powerful. Flecker, the sociologist, has noticed that job guarantee participants are often eager to show that they are not typical unemployed workers. “They say, ‘Oh, well, I’m not like the others. I have a special role here,” he told me. Many of the participants I spoke with noted that they were part of the group that wanted to work, while others in the program were, as they put it, lazy queue jumpers.
On my last day in Gramatneusiedl, I had coffee with Thomas Schwab, its mayor, at Job Guarantee headquarters. An older man who speaks with a cautious and professorial air, Schwab wrote his master’s thesis on Marienthal’s original study; he sees the current project in this historical context. “Maybe you know Adam Smith and those guys who say the market is always right,” he said. “If you can’t find a job, then just work for less money. But this is completely false! If I have Nope jobs in my company, there might be a thousand people outside, and they might say, like in the 1930s, “I’m going to work just to eat something.” Did they find a job? They couldn’t find a job, because no one had a job to offer.
Sven Hergovich, regional director of the Lower Austria Public Employment Service, basically agrees with this analysis. He believes that increasing demands for productivity and efficiency mean that, now and in the future, not everyone will be able to find a job without support. “There are not enough jobs available for all the long-term unemployed,” he told me. “Actually, we only have two options. Either we finance long-term unemployment, or we create a job guarantee.
Ultimately, the perceived success of any job guarantee program depends on what you think its goals should be. Kasy, the Oxford economist, thinks there are three factors to consider. Are people doing better on objective and subjective measures of well-being? Are they participating voluntarily? And does the program cost about the same or less than current unemployment benefits? He and his colleagues studied the Gramatneusiedl program using a randomized controlled trial, in which waves of participants who started at different times were compared to each other, to a statistical composite of similar unemployed people from cities. similar in Austria who do not have job guarantees, and against other factors. So far across a wide range of dimensions – symptoms of anxiety or depression, sense of social inclusion, social status, financial security, etc. – the improvements in participants’ lives are statistically significant. Kasy noted that the job guarantee does not cost more per person than unemployment benefits. “It’s free, people choose it voluntarily and they feel better – you’d think it’s a slam dunk,” he said.
If the goal of job guarantee programs is to move all participants into private sector jobs or to significantly reduce unemployment expenses, they can be difficult to defend. But, if the goals are to improve people’s physical and mental health, perform a range of tasks in a community, and move some participants are returning to the private sector, so the outlook looks brighter. Since my visit to Gramatneusiedl, many participants have moved on from the program to other jobs. Karl Blaha, of the shoe emporium, is now a facilities manager for a private logistics and transportation company. Gilbert, from forest fights, is the manager of a restaurant.
And there are other, broader ways in which these programs can benefit society. Unemployment and desperation are not the only causes of political extremism, but researchers have seen a link between these factors in several places and time periods. Before leaving Gramatneusiedl, I visited its historical museum, a quiet one-room building just off the main road. Inside, photographs from the early 20th century showed musicians with fiddles and accordions, villagers picnicking in a garden with top hats and glasses of wine, and rows of young men in uniform. wrestling, crossing strong arms. By the early 1930s, however, the mood had changed. Men strolled around the corner of a street, hands in their pockets, eyes lowered; the workers brought masses to the old factory, destroying the place where they worked. A few years later, a renewed activity animates the city again. Nazism had arrived. The footage showed a parade, banners, bustling crowds and, draped over the lectern of a man addressing villagers, a swastika. ♦