HUNDREDS OF thousands of industrial jobs have been permanently lost to the economy. Without help, their former occupants are not going to have the skills and education that will be needed in the jobs of the future. Carelessly ignoring the plight of these workers is terrible social policy and an enormous waste of talent and physical resources. It is also likely to build a powerful political backlash against needed economic change.
What sort of policies could aid these people without creating entitlements and expectations that neither the government nor the economy will be able to fulfill? We suggested yesterday that further help should be provided on a quid pro quo basis: the government needs to do more for displaced workers, but those workers should be prepared in return to do things that some of them may find distasteful.
When Congress, as it must, again extends unemployment benefits, these benefits should be linked to measures that help the unemployed get back to work. Putting workers and their families on the road in search of work is not a happy experience for them or for the communities that receive them. These people need much better help in finding new jobs than the typically perfunctory assistance that the diminished staffs of state employment services now provide. A national effort, preferably with business involvement, is needed. If the jobs are in other areas, workers may need help in finding new housing for their families and in disposing of their present homes.
If workers can't be matched up with permanent jobs, those who want to qualify for more unemployment benefits should be enrolled in part-time training and also provided with temporary jobs in local government or charitable organizations. The model for this combination of low-cost community work with intensive training comes, of course, from the most successful of the CETA programs. The president has an aversion to anything by that name. Perhaps that's because he, like many other people, doesn't realize that CETA was not one but many kinds of programs, and that the best of these programs worked very well.
Don't worry about "make-work." If it was ever much of a problem, it certainly isn't now that states and localities have drastically curtailed community services and essential maintenance. And if you're careful about the kind of training the workers also get, they won't linger long on the public payroll.
Providing help in return for effort would have the additional advantage of weeding out unemployment recipients who don't really need further aid. The money saved would then offset the cost of providing jobs and training for the unemployed. It won't be as cheap as simply extending cash benefits--and it may not be possible to train and place all comers-- but the nation would at least get something in return for its tax dollars--and so would the unemployed.
This temporary program would fit in well with the administration's longer-run plan to give the private sector a stronger role in designing training programs under the Job Training and Partnership Act passed last year--it already includes a small program for retraining displaced workers. But the federal government also needs to concern itself with seeing that new generations of workers don't enter the labor market without the skills that employers now want.
The federal government already spends billions of dollars on education aid, and it should. But it should put more pressure on schools to see that teachers and students meet tougher educational standards. The economy needs more graduates trained in mathematics, science, engineering and computer skills, and schools need more teachers qualified in these subjects. The federal government can use its substantial resources to encourage both.
These are measures that would reduce needless human suffering in ways that support economic recovery. They depend for their success, however, on the larger economic policies and political leadership that alone can ensure that recovery.