IT IS an unfortunate fact of life that what needs to be done and what is politically attractive to do often bear so little relation to each other. An example lies in the field of youth unemployment. It has been clearly documented, most recently by the National Bureau of Economic Research, that most young people do not have much trouble finding a job, and that things do not get much worse for them than for adults, even in times of recession. But the serious problem of unemployment is heavily concentrated on a relatively small group of young people who are very poor, mostly black or Hispanic and lack basic academic skills. For this group, chronic joblessness as a teen-ager is often just the beginning of chronic joblessness as an adult.
Unfortunatley, the overall unemployment statistics do not distinguish between this group of a million or so suffering serious difficulty and the transitory shifting between jobs that goes on among the 24 million young people between ages 16 and 21. And, even more unfortunately, it has been exceedingly difficult to get a significant portion of the billions of federal youth training and education funds tailored precisely to meet the needs of the very poor youth with serious literacy problems. They need basic academic skills and training in how to find and keep a job. But neither the school system or the manpower and employment system has been organized in a way that fills that need.
Schools tend to concentrate on basic reading, writing and arithmetic in the first few grades. Junior and senior high schools rarely run basic literacy programs, althouh success in places like the Job Corps and the armed services and certain innovative government training programs shows that such efforts can bear fruit. Now, all too many junior and senior high schools throw up their hands at the students who can't read. Vocational education, which migh have picked up this basic literacy function, does not concentrate adequately on minorities and the poor. Even for the relatively better-off youths it does serve, according to the National Bureau study, vocational education shows no efffect on employment success.
In the world of employment training and jobs programs, the needs of the worst off also tend to be missed. The youth employment bill about to come to floor debate in the House is an attempt to focus on these problems. Unfortunatley, a remarkable amount of the money that would flow through this new bill goes to old-line programs to do what looks suspiciously like what they have been doing -- ineffectually -- all along. For example, vocational education gets at least a quarter of the education funds, some of it to be spent on college-level kids. They are not the ones who need help first. Not enough of the money is earmarked for inner cities and rural poverty areas where school dropout rates are highest and joblessness is most severe.
Perhaps after we have been able to mount an effective rescue effort for the young people who are so desperately in need, we can go back to creating desirable programs for other young people. But this youth bill should not follow the long tradition of inventing programs for the easy-to-reach, leaving the kids who are in real trouble no better off than they were before.