EVERYONE agrees that the best long-run cure for unemployment is getting the private economy growing. You may harbor legitimate doubts about whether the stewards of economic policy have a clear idea about how to do that, but it is clear that no job programs can substitute for solid economic growth. That doesn't mean, however, that job programs can't perform the legitimate functions of relieving distress and making sure that, when recovery comes, everyone gets a fair shot at its benefits.
One way to help the jobless is to give them money. Unemployment benefits--now running at an annual rate of close to $30 billion--certainly keep the wolf away from many doors, and further benefit extensions are very likely. But these benefits were never meant to be more than a stopgap. Benefits are typically too low to keep a family from destitution for very long and, even with extensions, they run out. And because the system is designed as an entitlement, benefits are not channeled to those most in need. Unemployment insurance is a valuable system, but it doesn't suit the many workers who want and need more than a handout to get back on their feet.
Another way to help the jobless is to give them jobs. Unfortunately, the private economy isn't generating many new jobs these days, and few of the unemployed have the skills needed in growth areas. Under legislation passed last year, the Labor Department is planning to strengthen its existing job- training programs, but only a small part of the money will go to workers whose jobs have been abolished. Tax credits for private employers who hire the unemployed are sure to be considered, but there is already a substantial jobs tax credit in place, and experience with it--and with earlier variants--has been discouraging.
With money tight, the best approach would be to rechannel money that would otherwise be spent on extending unemployment benefits into a program combining intensive job search assistance with training and part-time jobs suited to the differing needs of the unemployed. That would require involving not only private-sector employers and state and local governments but the whole range of existing vocational education programs.
The Senate subcommittee on employment and productivity has already begun hearings on providing jobs and training for the unemployed. Chairman Dan Quayle hopes to propose legislation within the next two months. That's not a moment too soon. Of course, these are "Band-Aid" approaches. But a Band-Aid can be very helpful when you've got a bleeding wound.