WHILE CONGRESS struggles with the public works and emergency relief bill, the White House has sent a second set of job proposals to Capitol Hill. They will not impress legislators pushing for more jobs as much of an assault on the nation's massive unemployment problem, but there are ideas in the package worth considering.
The president's message begins with a thoughtful if belated recognition of the severity and likely persistence of the unemployment situation. Unemployment is not only higher than in other postwar recessions, but it has hit experienced workers much harder. More than 40 percent of the unemployed have families to support. Unemployed workers have been out of work for substantially longer periods of time, and, because of permanent changes in the economy, many will never return to their old jobs.
To deal with this situation, the president proposed again to continue the program of federal aid for workers who have used up their regular unemployment benefits. Congress, however, is already well on its way to approving a more generous version of this proposal as part of the Social Security reform measure.
The president also repeated his plans to reduce the minimum wage for youth--a move that would likely hurt adult low-wage workers more than it would help disadvantaged youth--and to attract industry to "enterprise zones" in selected depressed areas--a plan without much appeal at a time when major portions of the country can fairly claim to be in depression. Nor are states likely to be excited by the proposal to let them use unemployment insurance taxes to pay for training and relocation aid. Most states are already in debt to the federal government simply to cover regular unemployment benefits, and interest costs are mounting.
Building upon the experience gained in several pilot projects, the president would greatly enlarge the displaced worker program, which Congress added to last year's job training law. Money would be provided to states on a matching basis for retraining and finding jobs for workers whose jobs have been lost to the economy. The catch here is that some states can't afford to match the federal money.
The president would also allow workers receiving federally extended unemployment benefits to convert their unused benefits into vouchers that they could present to employers who offered them jobs. The employers would redeem the vouchers by crediting them against the unemployment insurance taxes they owe. The plan needs protections against employers' running workers through in cycles to maximize their credits, and it is not likely to add many new jobs to the economy. Still it would give the long-term unemployed a better shot at the jobs that open up, and the idea is worth trying on an experimental basis. These are not ambitious proposals, but some of them are, at least, a step in the right direction.