WITH STRONG pressure from both parties-- and some indications of interest from the White House--plans to help the nation's jobless are gaining momentum in Congress. One difficulty that policy-makers face is figuring out where to start.
The deepest recession in post-war history has caused many kinds of hardship. The worst-off among the unemployed are now standing in soup lines, living in tents and temporary shelters, and competing for services with chronically poor people whose welfare and other aid have been cut back. Thousands of others wait in fear for their benefits to run out. Budget cuts have made it difficult for public and private community agencies to serve even their usual clientele, much less the growing numbers in need of help.
Reaching these people with the right sort of help --while taking care that scarce budget dollars aren't wasted where they're not really needed--raises tricky political and administrative issues. How can you keep areas that don't have a serious unemployment problem from demanding a share of the new aid? How do you forestall business failures or farm foreclosures without bailing out people who simply speculated unwisely?
There is a question of fairness as well. If you want to help people who, as a result of the recession, now lack jobs, adequate food, shelter or medical care, what do you do about the millions of other people who, even when times were good, needed this kind of help and didn't get it? After all, as the president's Economic Report points out, many of the unemployed will find jobs by themselves when the economy improves. But even before the recession there were large numbers of people who wanted and needed jobs but couldn't find them. And while the recession has caused about 11 million people to lose medical benefits, almost twice that number never had coverage at all. Why should public policy favor the newly troubled over the chronically troubled?
One economic justification is that the country has a substantial investment in its trained workers and their families. It is true, as the Economic Report also notes, that many formerly well-paid workers in heavy industry will not be able to find comparable jobs even when the recovery is in full swing. But if a limited amount of help--a temporary job, retraining or other aid--can keep a family from joining the ranks of the permanently dependent, this is surely a good--and urgent--thing.
We will return to the subject of providing jobs and training. But we can suggest one modest--and fair--way to start helping the unemployed now. That would be to suspend the rules that keep many of the "new poor" from getting basic welfare, food stamps and Medicaid benefits. It makes no sense to require an unemployed father to abandon his family or to sell his car in order to get basic help for that family. Beggaring families is not exactly the way to get them back on their feet.