This month, Money on the Left is joined by Thomas Schwab who, as mayor of Gramatneusiedl in Lower Austria, oversees a promising Job Guarantee pilot program. Seeking to eliminate long-term unemployment, the program guarantees public jobs to anyone in the community who seeks them. In our conversation, we explore the philosophy and structure of Gramatneusiedl’s municipal employment service. We also discuss a key inspiration for the program: a Depression-era study of the effects of unemployment conducted in the same region as Gramatneusiedl. Titled “Die Arbeitslosen von Marienthal” (or, “The Unemployed of Marienthal”), the report detailed the deleterious effects of systemic unemployment in wake of a severe economic downturn and soon became an early classic of European sociology. Decades later, Schwab wrote a master’s thesis about the report, aiming to revive its findings in defense of public employment today. The Gramatneusiedl program is presently being studied by Jörg Flecker, a sociologist at the University of Vienna, as well as Lukas Lehner and Maximilian Kasy, economists at Oxford. The pilot is set to expire in 2024. Thereafter, however, Schwab and his allies anticipate leveraging current academic studies to renew and potentially scale up Gramatneusiedl’s public employment program.
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The following was transcribed by Mike Lewis and has been lightly edited for clarity.
Scott Ferguson: Thomas Schwab, welcome to Money On The Left!
Thomas Schwab: Hello, thank you for the invitation. I’m very excited and look forward to an interesting conversation.
Scott Ferguson: You are presently Mayor of Gramatneusiedl, a small town of roughly 3,000 people in Lower Austria. We’ve invited you to speak with us today about a municipal employment program you currently oversee that guarantees public jobs to anyone in the community who seeks them. Before getting into the details of the program, would you mind telling our audience a bit about your personal and professional background? How did you become Mayor of Gramatneusiedl?
Thomas Schwab: Before I tell you something about myself, I would like to introduce Gramatneusiedl to your audience. Gramatneusiedl is about 15 kilometers away from the city limits of Vienna. As you probably know, Vienna is the capital of Austria. Due to its proximity to Vienna, the population of Gramatneusiedl has risen relatively sharply in the last 20 years and today – you mentioned it – we have around 3,700 inhabitants. In Gramatneusiedl itself there are not too many jobs. Many people commute to work in Vienna or other communities in the area every day. Therefore, Gramatneusiedl is close to the city, but still in the country. We still have a few farmers in town who cultivate the fields around our community. Many young families have moved to us in recent years. Mainly because we can provide good care for children and young people in Gramatneusiedl – with kindergartens, an elementary school and a middle school. We have very active organizations and clubs that shape life in our community. For example: a volunteer fire brigade, a brass band and of course a soccer club. From my point of view, Gramatneusiedl is a livable small town with many advantages that make this place very attractive to live. Now about myself. I’m 52 years old. I’m married and have two children who are now 19 and 17 years old. I’ve lived in Gramatneusiedl my whole life. After kindergarten, I went to school here. After compulsory school, I completed a high school with an economic focus in Vienna. At the beginning of my professional life, I worked at Vienna Airport and for a company that manufactures safe systems. For around 30 years, I have been employed by a supplier for the automotive industry in a neighboring community of Gramatneusiedl. I worked in accounting for this company for many years. I’ve been on the works council for around 20 years, which is currently my main job. I work full time in this company – that means at least 38.5 hours per week. From 2005 to 2009, I studied beside my job in Vienna. At the end of my studies, I wrote a master’s thesis that dealt with the world-famous study “Die Arbeitslosen von Marienthal” or “The Unemployed of Marienthal” – but maybe more on that later. I have been involved with politics in Gramatneusiedl practically all my life. My father was active in the municipal council of Gramatneusiedl for many years. As a child, I learned how to shape and positively change the lives of people in our community. I myself have only been active in local politics for around 13 years. In 2020, I was the lead candidate for the Social Democratic Party in our community. We won the elections and achieved an absolute majority of mandates. In our federal state of Lower Austria, the Mayor is elected by the municipal council in a constitutive session. I was elected Mayor of Gramatneusiedl with 15 out of 21 votes from the mandataries. My group, the Social Democratic Party, has 11 seats on the municipal council. The next municipal council election will be held in 2025.
Billy Saas: Very cool, and we became aware of your work in Gramatneusiedl through a — Did I do okay?
Thomas Schwab: Yes, it’s fine.
Billy Saas: Okay. We became aware of your work through The New Yorker article [by Nick Romeo], which was published in December, and it was titled, “What Happens When Jobs Are Guaranteed?” Can you give us an overview of your experience with that, with being interviewed for that piece and talking to the folks for The New Yorker and a sense for how this story came to be?
Thomas Schwab: I think a reporter of The New Yorker also was informed that there is a new kind of program for long term unemployed people, and he visited Gramatneusiedl and wrote this article. The idea of the guaranteed jobs program was developed by the Public Employment Service of Lower Austria. This organization wants to show a new way in the labor market policy. Today, it is usually the case that the Public Employment Service tries to find jobs for the unemployed. For unemployed people, this can sometimes mean that they are unemployed for a very long time. This system turns those affected into supplicants and can lead to different difficulties for individuals. After deciding to carry out this experiment, the Public Employment Service of Lower Austria looked for suitable municipalities. Essentially, a community was sought whose long-term unemployed corresponded as closely as possible to the average for Lower Austria in terms of the age of the unemployed and the duration of unemployment. Apparently, Gramatneusiedl met these criteria best. The historical reference to Marienthal certainly also plays a major role, because Marienthal is inextricably linked to the term unemployment through the study “Die Arbeitslosen von Marienthal” or “The Unemployed of Marienthal”. After Gramatneusiedl was selected, there were initial talks with the head of the Public Employment Service of Lower Austria, Mister Sven Hergovich, who presented the project to our community. I wasn’t mayor back then, but my predecessor involved me in the discussions and in that way in the project. Overall, the Public Employment Service of Lower Austria asked three potential organizations to develop this project for the long-term unemployed and to present the possible implementation. I don’t know the individual concepts. The fact is that the organization named “itworks” was entrusted with conducting this experiment. As a municipality, we have supported “itworks” from the start, for example in finding suitable premises. The cooperation with the people involved worked immediately. Since the start of the Guaranteed Jobs Program, we as a municipality have been awarding contracts to “itworks” in order to enable the project participants to do meaningful work for the community. Through the work in the community and making people visible, this project did not encounter any resistance that I know of, on the contrary, there were many positive reports – especially about the quality of the work done. I think that was also part of the article in The New Yorker, where the reporter interviewed the participants, and I think, more or less, he gave that picture to the readers of The New Yorker. And that’s why we talk to each other today.
Jakob Feinig: Thank you for this. How would you describe the philosophy behind the program? How does this philosophy shape the program structure, its rules and also its operations?
Thomas Schwab: It is clear to me that the market does not solve the problem of unemployment. Because just reducing the price of work – people’s income – until a company offers work cannot be right. On the one hand, we want an income from which we can live, on the other hand the working conditions have to meet our standards. Unfortunately, there are not always enough jobs in a region. A company will not hire anyone if there is no work. We saw that very clearly if we look back in the 1930s, when people didn’t want any wages at all, only food for their work and still couldn’t find work. For this reason, for me, the neoliberal economic approach is wrong! In my view, the idea of the Guaranteed Jobs Program was developed precisely to refute this approach. This program tries to respond very individually to each person. There are usually reasons why people become unemployed and unfortunately sometimes cannot find a job for a long time. The philosophy behind the program recognizes that each participant has strengths and weaknesses. For example, someone may not be sufficiently qualified to find a job or may be too old to be hired. From my point of view, people often become desperate after a long period of unemployment and do not even try to find work anymore because they have the feeling that they are not needed. In the Guaranteed Jobs Program, an attempt is made together with the participants to find a job that is suitable for the individual. The wishes of the project participants are also taken into account, as is the extent of the possible working hours, for example. I think it is very important that participation in the Guaranteed Jobs Program is voluntary. If a participant decides to take part in this program, they will receive an employment contract and will not be unemployed any longer. With few exceptions, all of the long-term unemployed have accepted the offer to participate in the Guaranteed Jobs Program. It is the task of the program to find a meaningful activity. There are job opportunities in the program, but also public contracts, for example from the municipality of Gramatneusiedl. We have also established contacts with companies that have now placed individual orders with the Guaranteed Jobs Program. For example, apartments are renovated by the project participants and prepared again for the next tenant. You have to be unemployed for at least a year to be able to take part in the program. About 150 people have decided to participate so far. I know many participants who have found a job in a company again. I think that’s the most important thing: to be ready for the job market — to be ready to be able to get a new job in the primary job market. That’s the goal of the whole program.
Scott Ferguson: So we’ve been mentioning a few times in our questions and answers so far, the fact that this program has been subconsciously inspired by history, and in particular, this depression era study of the effects of unemployment in this very region. The English title, as you suggested, for this report, was called “The Unemployed of Marienthal”. And the report became an early classic of sociology. Decades later, you wrote, as you said, a master’s thesis about the report. Can you tell us a little bit about the report? And why was it worthy of a master’s thesis, however many decades later, and how has it helped inspire you to engage in what you’re doing today?
Thomas Schwab: Yeah, I think The historical study “Die Arbeitslosen von Marienthal” or “The Unemployed of Marienthal” is quite rightly a standard work in social science. Essentially, the fate of people who became unemployed overnight after the closure of a textile factory and unfortunately these people did not find work for a very long time. You may now be wondering what Marienthal has to do with Gramatneusiedl. Marienthal was never the name of a separate community, but only the name of this textile factory and the associated workers’ settlement. Most of Marienthal is in Gramatneusiedl – for that reason the connection. In my view, this explanation was necessary at this point. From my point of view, the most important chapter in the study is entitled “Fading Resilience”. This chapter clearly proves that the long-term unemployed have lost all drive and motivation. Even though they had all day, they didn’t do anything. While the women had to take care of the children and the household, the men were completely lost. Before unemployment, there was a rich cultural and sporting life in Marienthal. During the period of unemployment, people were not interested in these activities. It was similar, for example, with borrowing books or other leisure activities. The study shows very impressively how long-term unemployment changes people. This is exactly where the Guaranteed Jobs Program comes in. The Guaranteed Jobs Program enables project participants to use their time wisely and gives structure to the working day. The social contacts with the other project participants are also very important – just as working people have these contacts in their companies. In my master’s thesis, I tried to compare the Marienthal of the years 2008/09 – there was an economic crisis at that time – with the historical Marienthal. For that reason, the title of my work was “Marienthal – 75 years after the publication of the historical study “Die Arbeitslosen von Marienthal” or “The Unemployed of Marienthal”. The link was, of course, the crisis situation, but you can compare the 1930s with the financial crisis at the end of the 2000s. The decade 2008-2009. Of course, in the historical study you had a situation in our community that was like a laboratory. Nobody has a car. The people were used to walking in our village and they don’t have the possibility to go to another community where they can work. And also, of course, there was a global crisis with horrible figures of unemployment. And therefore, I tried to ask the same questions as the scientists did in 1930. But of course, I was alone, it’s only a master thesis and not this study with 17 scientists. They spent months, approximately half a year here in Marienthal. And of course, they had much more experience with all these things. But at the end of the day, I wrote the study and a lot of literature connecting with this study. Therefore, I think I know quite well how the people live and what’s going on in Marienthal at that time. Therefore, for example, we had a small museum here in our village, and we did some tours with interested people. I really appreciate that each time because a lot of people are interested in that topic, of course, because unemployment is, unfortunately, a topic all the time because people will be unemployed also in the future. Therefore, it is also very interesting that the people today have the same problems as the people in the 1930s. As I mentioned before, the problem is that they had a lot of time, but they had nothing to do in that time. After a long period of unemployment, we know that people are frustrated. And they stop searching for work because they don’t think there is somebody or company who needs their work. Therefore, I think you can compare the feelings of the unemployed people from the 1930s to today. It’s the same situation, of course, the work itself is another work with the textile industry completely changed. Most companies are not in Europe anymore. But of course, if you’re unemployed, you have the same problem as the people in the 1930s, and the only huge difference from my point of view is that you are more mobile. That means you have the possibility to go from, for example, Gramatneusiedl to Vienna, it’s no problem. You can also go to other places in Europe because of the European Union. That was not possible in the 1930s. But I tried to figure out in my small work that there is something you can compare, and there are things you can compare at the end of the day. But I can only recommend the historical Marienthal study to your audience. Unfortunately, I think we cannot discuss the study for a long time because we will have a lack of time, I think. But I hope that some people will know that the historical study is quite small — not too many pages to read, but very, very interesting. I’m sure that people will understand that the problems are more or less the same. The times are changing but the problem of unemployment, especially long term unemployment, is the same as it was in the past.
Billy Saas: So how have community members, people living in Gramatneusiedl, responded to the jobs program? How is it affecting the community and individual lives within the community? And then I guess finally: would you call it a success?
Thomas Schwab: Yeah, I have briefly indicated before that the response from our community members has been consistently positive. Of course, in a small community, it matters a lot if about 150 out of 3,700 residents are or have been participating in this program. Every project participant has his family and his friends and talks about this program. Of course, there are also very isolated negative voices, but that’s life. Generally speaking, the individual project participants are part of our public life. On the one hand, when they work in public within the framework of the project, but on the other hand also as self-confident community citizens. The positive coverage in numerous domestic and foreign media certainly contributed to this. In these reports, project participants were often shown or quoted – whether on television or in print media. Some former project participants have even found new work in Gramatneusiedl. From the mayor’s point of view, the citizens of Gramatneusiedl like that more can be done for the municipality through this project. We cannot do all the work that we should do ourselves. For this reason, the project participants help to keep Gramatneusiedl nice and well maintained. I have the impression that the Guaranteed Jobs Program is a great success. At the end of the project period, the results will be scientifically evaluated. The previous interim reports of science give hope for this result. I think these reports or the media: it looks fine, it looks perfect. It seems that it will be a success, and I’m sure that we will see the results in a very positive way after the period of this project. I’m looking forward to it.
Billy Saas: Would you say there’s anything particularly special about Gramatneusiedl that makes a jobs guarantee program especially suited for it? Or do you think that other communities, say in Austria or smaller cities, towns, villages or maybe bigger cities could use this, could do this program and could follow this model that you’re setting with the program in Gramatneusiedl?
Thomas Schwab: I’m sure that it would be possible to do this program in other communities, as well. But I’m sure that it makes sense to start with this program in a quite large community because there you have the possibility to make it visible. That means they do work for our community. That was in all the discussions with Sven Hergovich and the Public Employment Service. One of the goals that we should or would like to give the people the chance to work for us because we would like to use the resources of this program, as well. But in a smaller village it makes no sense, I think, because there are not enough long term unemployed, thank God. We had a significant number of more than 100 long term unemployed people before the program as we know it started and we had a lot of people who were unemployed for more than three years or a longer period of time. That means, of course, the research work before starting this project and selecting Gramatneusiedl was more or less to find a community who is in a range that is able to manage that. If they studied, for example, in Vienna, Vienna has 2 million people. It makes no sense because there is no organization from my point of view in Austria who can manage this. Therefore, they had to find an organization who is able to do that in a smaller town like Gramatneusiedl. At the beginning, approximately 100 people split into two groups. They started with the program in October 2020, three months later, the next 30 people started with the program and so on. Therefore, it makes sense to do that in these steps, and you have to also think about, maybe we’ll talk about that a little later, that you need, of course, new participants for the program as well. It makes no sense if you had a project period of three to four years, and then there is nobody, not any unemployed in the village anymore. There needs to be some size, but not too much. I think all these thoughts were made before they started to select because they had to know how many people can be part of this project and who can do this job for the Public Employment Service.
Jakob Feinig: Yes. So I have an additional question, which would be: given that there was so much positive media coverage, and that there does seem to be very few critical comments, what do you think about the political possibility of scaling this up to Lower Austria, to the entire country, maybe beyond the country? What’s your take on that?
Thomas Schwab: Yeah, I think, of course, there is a political chance there. But as you know, the mainstream of political thinking in Europe, also unfortunately in Austria, is more or less I would say a conservative approach. That means all these programs are hard to roll out to the whole country because you need the government of, for example, our province Lower Austria, as well as you think bigger of the whole country. Therefore, of course, you need the political will because unemployment is a sensitive topic in politics. That means you always have the discussions: why do people get money, and they don’t work? And maybe, for example, in that case, a lot of companies are searching for workers or for people who can work, and there are some unemployed, and it’s easy to see why they don’t work. We know that there are a lot of different reasons. That’s why I’m really glad that we have the possibility in Gramatneusiedl because now we have no long term unemployment in our village. I think that’s one of the first things that is really really positive, especially of course, for the people. On the other hand, it shows that there is a possibility to manage the topic of long term unemployment. If there is a will. I think there is a political chance there. But you need all the politics for doing that and bringing that in a wider range and then a larger area. I think that is not a huge problem. I’m sure that if the results of the program will be ready after ending the program, the political discussion will be harder. Then we have the results and it is connected. That’s also a fine situation for us with scientists from the University of Vienna and the University of Oxford. Therefore, a lot of media coverage came out of these scientists. They told the story, they wrote reports, and a lot of people are interested in that in the perfect world, I think.
Scott Ferguson: So you are getting so much positive feedback from the community, from researchers close and far, and also the press, and even the international press. But you’re also very cognizant of the fact that this very much pushes against, both in its philosophy and its implementation, is very much against the reigning neoliberal and conservative ideology. So are the people, the organizations, the institutions who hold up this conservative ideology, are they just letting this fly under the radar? Are they worried? Are they speaking out against it? Are you playing out a happy utopian experiment and no one seems to know or care who might be politically rattled by it?
Thomas Schwab: I think it is discussed, and a lot of colleagues, a lot of mayors contacted me, or we talked about this program. Everybody would like to have this program in his community, of course, because the results are positive. But on the other hand, politics is more or less a game. You would like to find voters, and I have to be careful, but I think it’s more or less a game. You try to find out where you can catch as many voters as possible, and the group of unemployed people does not have a large pressure group behind them. There are no unemployed people in the Houses of Parliament in Vienna, for example. There is nobody fighting for them. Of course, political parties do that, but in Austria, on one hand, we spent a lot of money in COVID times for all measurements for the people, and much more for the companies. On the other hand, we discuss unemployment payments and all other social payments for people. They do not have the highest income, to say it very carefully. That means it’s easy to fight against them, to say that’s not the best way because they do nothing for the community. On the other hand, we know it is not their goal to be unemployed in a high percentage of cases. I think that’s also one of the positive things in this guaranteed jobs program because most of the people who were invited to be participants of this program said: yes, I would like work. Of course, with the different possibilities they have. At the end of the day, only a handful of people have joined the program up to now. I think that’s one of the reasons why we can say to the people that if an unemployed person is offered a job, then he will do the job if it fits more or less to his qualification or other things if he is not. If it’s in our region, of course, because it’s not possible in Austria, compared with the US, you move from your home village to 500 kilometers away for work. Not very usual in Austria at that time. But, of course, there are some challenges in the program. Challenge for the program is, as I mentioned before, the number of possible new project participants, and a lot of discussions will take place after the end of the jobs program because then we have results from scientists, and nobody from politics can say this is all nonsense, I think. Therefore, I’m quite sure that the discussions will be harder and will be more direct to the topic if the program is over, when the project period is over.
Billy Saas: You mentioned that the project and the program itself is being studied, and the data is being analyzed by researchers at the University of Vienna and Oxford. Could you tell us a little bit about what you understand to be their preliminary findings? What are they discovering and how are they contextualizing what y’all are doing alongside other kinds of contemporary debates about things like public investment, unemployment, automation, and so on?
Thomas Schwab: I think the accompanying investigations of the addressed scientists are a very important part of the project. Sven Hergovich, head of the Public Employment Service in Lower Austria, put forward the thesis that the Guaranteed Jobs Program costs about the same as the costs for an average unemployed person. We’re talking about costs at the start of the project in Austria of around 30,000 euros per year. Since no final results are available yet, there is currently only a debate about whether a job guarantee is a sensible solution or whether the current system should be retained. I am convinced that the results will show that the Guaranteed Jobs Program will be the more sensible and cheaper solution for society. The fact that long-term unemployment can be avoided or, so to speak, defeated by this model, is an important finding so far. From the point of view of the mayor of our community, of course, I also see the support for the well-being of the community citizens. Thanks to the work of the project participants, our community has become even more livable and some of the citizens – the project participants and their families – are happier. I think we see the positive influence today: we see the positive influence since the project has started, and I’m sure that we will see that also in the future. For me, this is a great success. From the point of view of a citizen of Gramatneusiedl, we see also the people — they work now, they are more part of our community because they stayed at home and are frustrated because they have no money, they have no job. The major point is that they understand money for working now within this program as if they would sit at home and receive their unemployment payment. That means they have no positive influence from the income side, but on days that they have the chance to find work they see that they have useful work for themselves and they have the possibility to create their own job, more or less. If they would like to do something new, for example, they will have the possibility to try that. It’s not possible if you go to a company and you have no experience to say I would like to do the job, you will have troubles to get this job in normal times. Maybe sometimes it works, but normally you have no possibility to do completely new work without any experience, and in the job guarantee program, you have the possibility to learn new things, you can change your professional life a little bit, and with this experience out of the program, you will have better chances on the primary job market.
Scott Ferguson: Can you give us a sense of some of the particular jobs that have been created or filled in the program? And what kinds of services or goods or forms of maintenance are they involved in?
Thomas Schwab: For example, for our community, they do a lot of gardening work. We had a lot of things to do in that way. For the community itself, it makes sense that they had a lot of people. They have a lot of time and they do this work. They have instructors in different kinds of work. They do some renovation work for apartments as well as furniture; they have their own workshop there. It depends on the instructors, what they can do on a more or less professional basis. On the other hand, they do some creative things. They do all the things with textiles or something like that. They produce some goods, and they sell it on the weekly market in Gramatneusiedl. Also, they have their own market within the, that’s also an interesting point, they are located with their workshop and with their meeting rooms and the offices of the project within the historical textile company building, more or less. In former times, the director of the textile company lived there. After this period of time in the next company, which was located in that area, there was the office building. They are located in the same area as the historical textile company. They had a lot of interviews with the participants before they started to work, and they had the possibility to tell them what they would like to do as they try to find a way to give them the possibility or to give them the chance to try these things. Therefore, it’s easy for some of them to learn new things. On the other hand, of course, companies in our area are looking for workers or for employees, and they contacted me in the past, asking: “how is it possible to get workers out of this program?” And we tried to bring them together and yeah, a lot of people had the chance to start working in a company and I think they are happier.
Scott Ferguson: Can we hear a little bit more about the instructors? Where are they sourced from? Are they permanent employees of the Public Employment Service? Do they come from elsewhere: do they have other jobs and they volunteer? I’m curious to hear about the details of that part of the system.
Thomas Schwab: As far as I know, they come from the organization “itworks”. The organizations I know are familiar with working with unemployed people. They have a lot of activities in Vienna, and an instructor normally comes out of Vienna to Gramatneusiedl or we work there for the whole time. But they are employees of the organization itself, and they are trained, they are familiar with these kinds of people because they also have their projects in other communities, especially as I know that in Vienna. In Gramatneusiedl, the responsible people try to find out with the participants what they would like to learn, what they would like to do, which possibilities they have, which opportunities they can fix with them. Then, they come to our village and work with them.
Jakob Feinig: Could you maybe explain what “itworks” is? What kind of organization, what kind of history, trajectory, and experience they have?
Thomas Schwab: As far as I know, they are specialists for social projects themselves. They do a lot of work with the unemployed as well as with elderly people. They do that on a professional basis. They work together in Vienna also with the Public Employment Service. As I explained before, three of such organizations were invited to find a solution, to find a concept for these long term unemployment projects in Gramatneusiedl. They are well known in this scene for the public employment service, they will know them. I didn’t know them before, I have to tell you that. But I think in Austria, a lot of organizations work with people, and they get their employees from the market and the jobs they are looking for should fit the employment programs. If they work with old people, for example, they need other qualifications as here in Gramatneusiedl. But I don’t know them really well because we are glad they are here and we didn’t talk about their other work, more or less.
Billy Saas: Are you aware of or have you become aware of, since the increased media attention on your program, of any other similar programs that are either sort of in proposal stages or being developed? Or maybe in fact, are underway? I’m not, but I wonder if you might have become aware of other programs? No?
Thomas Schwab: No, unfortunately not. I think that’s why we get the whole coverage of the media.
Billy Saas: Yeah.
Thomas Schwab: Because it’s unique. Of course, there is a conservative government that rules Austria at the moment. Despite this, the Public Employment Service managed to get this great project and the financing of 7.4 million euros, I think, off the ground. I think that’s a huge amount of money. On the other hand, Mr. Hergovich and his colleagues had the idea, and now we have this experiment. We will see how positive the results are at the moment, if there is a possibility that the politicians will use that as an example and find a way to implement it in, for example, the region of Lower Austria or in the region of Austria or somewhere else in Europe. I’m sure it is possible all over Europe because we had similar systems in some countries, therefore, it should work in that way. That can be an example for a lot of people that it is possible to do something against long term unemployment, and I’m looking forward to that. As I said before, Marienthal is not only linked to unemployment. Maybe in the future, also well known as a village to find a solution against long term unemployment with this guaranteed job program.
Billy Saas: Part of the reason I asked that is that, yeah, I’m not aware of any others either. In the early 2000s, there was a similar sort of program the Hefe y Hefas in Argentina, which has gotten some attention and comes up every now and then. There have been, in recent years, more experiments in cities and municipalities, towns, villages, experimenting with a universal basic income where they just cut a check to people. I wonder: what would you say to those who might come to you and say: “Why induce people to labor in the first place? Why not just cut a check to those who are long term unemployed?” And I think you’ve given us a sense of what your answer would be in terms of like the social and sort of mental, physical health, and well being benefits that come from working. Would you have any other answers? Or what else would you say to someone who said, maybe just do a universal basic income with those 7.6 million euros next time?
Thomas Schwab: I think, if you have a basic income, it’s another kind of discussion, for me, because that’s more or less another approach because everybody would receive the same amount of money. And if you do some work, you will earn more than other people. Yeah, I’m not sure if that is the solution for unemployment. Because if you receive, for example, 1,500 euros per month, and you are fine with that, you will not work. Then we have the same problem. You will not be part of the society, you will stay at home, you have no social interaction with your colleagues, for example, in a company. You will be fine, you will be able to pay the rent for your apartment, the energy, and you can buy some food. I think that’s a fine approach, but I’m not sure if this will help in every case. In Austria, you don’t have an income for all, but you have a minimum standard of income that’s not enough for living, but it’s also a possibility to increase the demand. Therefore, it would not be a huge problem, but I think it’s another kind of solution. It makes sense to me. I think in Sweden, or somewhere, they tried it. As I wrote in the newspaper, they were not 100% happy with that, and I think we have to try another approach. Maybe in that direction, but not in the same process, because the results will be the same. Here we are in another topic: employment, unemployment is more or less living. If you sit at home and do nothing, and you have enough money, the chance that nobody does anything is quite higher. We live in a time where a lot of people, even though they are neighbors, don’t know more than 10 people in their surrounding. Of course, a lot of social interaction happens in a company or university, for example, if you go out of your flat. Therefore, I think it’s an interesting discussion and basic income is also a good approach, but it’s another topic. I think it would help us in some cases, but I’m not sure if this is completely the best solution. A job guarantee program for long term unemployed is the solution to help the people come back to the society, come back to work, in a positive way or help the people to do something where it’s no pressure because working in a company, something is another work as if you work in the program and you don’t go out of the program because you are not ready for the job market. Therefore, it’s different to other things because you have the possibility to choose if you would do something more or not, it depends on the personal condition and on your personal behavior and on your possibilities. Do you have the possibility to go to another village because you have no driving license, for example? When I started work in my company, the first shift started at 5am in the morning. There is no public transport. You cannot come to the company, and all these things are very, very different. If you have such a program, you also have opportunities that the people will do their work. Maybe within the program, maybe for the community, but not for a company. There’s no pressure on it. You are also fine if you work only 10 hours a week there; you’re not forced to work 40 hours a week because if you work 10 hours a week in a company you only earn a few euros of money. As much time as you work, as much money will you receive from your company. In that case, you have the possibility to find solutions for people who are not in the condition to work, for example, the whole day or the whole week.
Billy Saas: We’ve talked quite a bit about the jobs guarantee program being a solution for long term unemployment. I wonder, one of the things that excites me about the idea of a larger scale job guarantee, perhaps, is the notion of what it offers for those who are currently employed in work that is not good or rewarding or who might be short term unemployed, but would like to try something new. Could you say something about how you imagine a program like this, if it scaled up, what it might do for those who are, say, in jobs that they don’t like, doing work that they do not find meaningful. Do you have thoughts about that?
Thomas Schwab: Yeah, I think at the moment, we have a quite good time for people who would like to change their jobs. We have large amounts of fluctuation in Austria, also in normal years, but now a lot of companies are looking for new employees. Now, people have the possibility to quit their job if they are not glad with the working conditions or with the salary or something like that and find another job. At the moment, it’s easy to do that. That’s maybe a difference to the US. In Austria, we have unemployment payments. If you’re unemployed, you receive money from the government. You will always have people who change their jobs or they are short term unemployed. I think the one year period of time you have to be unemployed, that you are more or less a long term unemployed, is connected with the period of time you can receive some money from the government out of the unemployment payments. It’s not a good deal in Austria because, unfortunately, you receive only 55% of your income as an unemployment payment. That’s not the best percentage in Europe. In Belgium or other countries in Scandinavia, the people who are unemployed receive much more money. But at the end of the day, I think the problem is if you try to implement a guaranteed jobs program for all unemployed, it is not possible for any organization in Austria to deal with that. Therefore, it makes no sense to try that. Of course we have the Public Employment Service whose job it is to find a job for the unemployed. Of course, it’s easier in one case, and it’s more difficult in another case because the jobs are different, the qualifications are different. It is necessary to look where the jobs are needed, in which region they are needed. For example, as you probably know, in Austria, tourism is a strong economic factor. But tourism is more or less within the Alps or in cities, and the people are not there in that amount of necessary employees. As I mentioned before, nobody from Gramatneusiedl would go to Kitzbuhel to work in a hotel. If he has a family, if he has a house or an apartment here, why should he do that? That’s also an end point within the discussion: what is possible for the unemployed and what will the government force them to do? And that’s a huge discussion all the time because, of course, you have other kinds of unemployment in Austria as you have in the US. There is another culture connecting with work, as we have it, here in Austria or in Western Europe. There are a lot of people, and it’s growing more and more. They are traveling around the world all day, but a normal worker with not that much skill is more or less fine if they are in their community. They don’t want to go away from home in most cases. Therefore, it is a problem. On paper, it’s easy. You have at the moment 300,000 unemployed people in Austria. We need 200,000 employees somewhere. Why are 300,000 people unemployed? That’s the argument of the right wing parties, especially. They argue in that way.
Billy Saas: Perhaps there’s no agency or institution in Austria yet that could handle a universal guarantee of a job. But thank you so much for being so generous with your time, Mayor Thomas Schwab. Thank you for joining us on Money On The Left.
Thomas Schwab: It’s a pleasure. I enjoyed it a lot. Thank you for the invitation, once more. I wish you all the best. And I hope that we will see that this program we discussed will be a part of the programs all over the world to get rid of long term unemployment. That’s my hope. I hope you will hear a lot about this program in the future because I think it’s a wonderful idea. In our small village works, more or less. Very, very good from my point of view. Thank you, also for your time. I’m looking forward to hearing the podcast.
* Thanks to the Money on the Left production team: William Saas (audio editor), Mike Lewis (transcription), & Emily Reynolds of The Buffalo Institute for Contemporary Art (graphic art)