RECESSIONS, like wars, have lasting consequences for those serving in their front ranks. Many of the casualties of the current recession--the long-term unemployed and their families--will not recover.
The hardships are especially likely to be enduring because they come during a period of substantial structural change in the economy. Many of the hundreds of thousands of workers laid off from basic industries over the last two or three years will never be called back--their jobs have been lost to international competition or to technological innovation. Nor are these displaced workers likely to find new jobs that can restore their families to their previous standard of living.
In the frictionless world of economic models, these workers in declining industries--with their proven skills and steady work habits--will flow effortlessly into the labor force of expanding industries. In the hard, bumpy world of everyday living, it's not like that. The young and well-trained will make the transition relatively smoothly. But many unemployed workers are middle-aged and tied to their communities by houses they can't sell, children in school and the strong bonds of familiarity and family ties.
Public and private programs to relocate workers affected by plant closings are far from new. But even when relocation programs have been thoughtfully planned and expensively executed, their results have been disappointing. The workers who move--and stay moved--are usually those who would have moved anyway. The rest find the adjustment to new communities too unsettling, especially when, as many immigrants to the Sun Belt are now finding, their new locations lack the amenities of older, more stable communities and their new jobs fall far short of their old ones in terms of pay and benefits.
That is perhaps the saddest reality to which old- line industrial workers must adjust. There will be new high-paying jobs created in the 1980s, but they will require far more technical training or education than was needed to make $10 an hour or more on an assembly line. And employers are not likely to choose to invest heavily in upgrading the skills of workers who are already halfway through their working lives.
With unemployment benefits far scarcer than in the deep recession of 1975 and Social Security disability rolls (the final recourse in 1975 for many middle-aged workers unable to find reemployment) now closed to all but the severely disabled, the only option for formerly high-paid industrial workers is to swallow their pride, dispose of their saleable assets and enter the high-turnover world of minimum- wage, low-level service jobs. And there many of them are likely to stay. In all the talk of eventual recovery, it is important to keep these people in mind and to remember that, for them, unconventional kinds of education may be the best and only kind of help government can provide.