WITH CONGRESS busy cutting programs and raising taxes, it's easy to forget that some parts of the country are in the midst of a depression --not a recession, but a real old-time depression. Nationally, almost one in 10 job-seekers can't find work, but in some localities unemployment is almost twice the national rate. What, if anything, should be done?
The House Ways and Means Committee is recommending that the government provide an extra 13 weeks of unemployment benefits to hundreds of thousands of workers in high unemployment states who have used up their regular benefits. That's the approach used in the last major recession in 1974 when benefits were extended even more generously. It's quick and easy to do, but the trouble is that when the extended benefits run out in a few months, many of the long-term unemployed are likely to be no better off than before. This isn't a normal recession in which all you want to do is tide people over until they get called back to their jobs. Many jobs in autos, steel and other basic industries are never going to come back.
One way to help workers make a more permanent adjustment would be to re-employ them doing other things that need doing in areas where local governments are having to cut back sharply on services. A House leadership proposal before the Appropriations Committee would give jobs to the long-term unemployed in hard-hit areas doing repair and maintenance work on roads, bridges and other public facilities. Workers might learn new skills and perhaps get permanent jobs if the local economy improves, and communities would get better facilities with which to entice new employers. The disadvantage is that creating jobs costs more than handing out benefits, at least in the short run.
Still other approaches would spend money to retrain workers for industries likely to expand when recovery comes. The Senate passed a jobs bill that would provide up to $100 million for this purpose, using local private industry groups to organize the training. Another measure awaiting House action would spend $250 million to train skilled workers for the defense industry. With so much money already going to defense, targeting on this one industry may not make much sense, however, and the bill also makes the mistake of putting most of its money through state vocational education systems rather than involving employers directly.
The best approach would coordinate all these efforts--tie unemployment aid to a worker's willingness to take a new job or training and develop jobs and training with an eye to future labor shortages. But that would require recognition by both the administration and Congress that the trend in unemployment has been upward for a long time and that bringing it down is no longer a matter of simply waiting out the business cycle.