TODAY IN AMERICA there are 12 million people looking for work. Millions of other jobless people have either become so discouraged they've quit trying to find a job or have taken part-time work until they can find a full-time job. Why can't these people find work? After all, there are still help wanted ads in the papers, though admittedly only around half as many as two years ago. The trouble is that many of the available jobs require skills and education possessed by few of the unemployed. Openings do occur in less-skilled jobs: even in the worst depression normal turnover produces some vacancies. But for most of them there is a line of job-seekers waiting.

Recently in Los Angeles, about 1,000 people -- some in upper-middle-class attire -- lined up to apply for five manual labor jobs. These jobs, however, paid up to $1,380 a month. Further down the heap are the menial jobs that have become the property of illegal immigrants and other fringe members of the society. When the immigration service launched a drive to oust illegal workers from these jobs last spring, employers claimed that they could find no other takers. Perhaps the employers didn't try very hard -- illegal status makes docile workers -- but when the Wall Street Journal tracked down some U.S. workers who took them, they found that nearly all had quit within a few days. Low pay and harsh working conditions were part of the reason. But so was self-respect. Stigma attaches to the kind of work currently reserved for aliens. Minimum level wages are now derided as "women's pay."

Perhaps that attitude partly explains why women haven't been hit as hard by this recession as men have. But before you prescribe a steady diet of minimum wages for the unemployed, remember that the minimum wage is now frozen at $3.35 an hour. In terms of purchasing power that's about 25 percent less than the minimum wage in 1975. After payroll deductions, transportation and other work expenses, a minimum-wage worker clears less than $6,000 a year, far below the official poverty level for a family of four. Try providing food, clothing, housing and medical care for a family on that amount of money -- even if you're eligible for government supplementary assistance -- and you'll see why breadwinners can't settle for it.

Of course many people who are trained for and accustomed to better-paid work have taken such jobs to make some livelihood anyhow. But this kind of drop in living standards -- especially after people have "paid their dues," worked their way up a bit higher--is not something that the average American, growing up in the prosperous decades since World War II, has been led to expect. There have been recurrent recessions to be sure, but government intervention in the economy and government insurance-type programs could be counted on to see everyone through, and sooner or later the jobs came back.

This time a return to normal conditions is not in the cards. Government policy has changed. And more is going on in the economy than the kind of cyclic downturn that comes from an excess of inventories or even an oil shock. While no one was paying much attention, the U.S. economy became internationalized, and a new wave of automation is sweeping through both the manufacturing and service sectors. This means more markets for the high technology that America excels at, but it also means that many of the jobs formerly held by the nation's displaced workers will, in the future, be done by either foreign workers or robots. Without substantial help, the worker in search of a decently paid assembly line job is likely to be on the road for a long time. That's is why the help must come.