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Guest Column

July 9, 2011

The folly of job-training programs

America believes that the solution to every social and economic problem is job training.

Outsourcing? Job training. Economically depressed neighborhoods? Job training. Impoverished single mothers? You guessed it.

We're job training ourselves silly. We even have a bill in Congress, The Seniors Offering Quality Child Care Act, HR 335 (It's been there for a while). Why should all those seniors sit around helping their own families and grandkids? They can be "trained" to work in day-care centers. Never mind that it's likely they already know a great deal about raising children, or that most seniors won't choose working in a day care over spending time with their own grandchildren.

When it comes to job training as American social policy, however, my biggest sympathies are reserved for Americans on welfare (also known as Public Assistance or Temporary Assistance to Needy Families), because taxpayer-funded job training is largely reserved for families on welfare, and it's compulsory.

Job training has nearly replaced cash assistance in U.S. poverty programs. Although no state's cash assistance payment reaches 50 percent of the federal poverty line ($18,530 for a family of three), every state spends federal poverty funds on job training, and the things that people need because they are in training, like child care. This transition hasn't gone well _ not fiscally, not socially.

In Ohio, where a family's welfare payment reaches to only 30 percent of the poverty line, hundreds of millions of federal dollars intended for poor people sat unused because the state said it did not have enough job training programs to spend the money on. The state commissioner of social services, Jack Frech, wanted to use the money to increase monthly cash assistance. His administrators balked.

California has had similar gluts where anti-poverty funds have piled up because of the state's insistence that they be used for job training. Hawaii and New Jersey have done evaluations of some of their job trainings, finding them unaccountable and ineffective.

We fund them, but we don't even know what people learn in them, though I have an idea. A mother on welfare I know used to fill me in about her job training in the Bronx. One day, the "job training specialist" made all the participants get down on the floor and do sit-ups _ in their work clothes. The trainer promised this would build their character. The mother said all it did was give her a dry-cleaning bill to pay. Anyone who refused was marked absent for the day and would lose a portion of his or her cash benefits.

There is not an "approved job training" program for welfare recipients that teaches anything one did not learn in high school or that one cannot purchase on the open market. It is likely that job training programs that have to compete for business will be of better quality than the government-funded, mandatory type that welfare families are obligated to attend.

Neither Democrats nor Republicans have talked about the waste of funds on job training at any point in the budget discussions. In 2009, the New York City Independent Budget Office studied a job training program called Back to Work. It said that Back to Work spent $53 million in 2008. It began with 143,000 clients, and after using human resources to "screen" them, reduced the pool to 58,000. The 58,000 (mostly women with young children) went through job training. Only 5,337 people, or 9.4 percent, were still in the jobs they had been placed in six months later.

New York City spent $10,000 per participant, excluding their wages. This makes as much sense as paying a headhunter $10,000 to find you a job in Walmart.

Every so often some comptroller will do an audit in which it's found that the programs are poorly designed; or inefficient; or are not resulting in employment for the participants. This is what happened in Hawaii and New Jersey, and in New York. When Carl McCall was our comptroller, he published a report highly critical of New York state's welfare-to-work programs. When Back to Work's wastefulness came to light, it was as the result of Bill DeBlasio's asking for an IBO study.

Yet after concluding that the program is only temporarily employing 9 percent of participants, at public expense, the recommendation was not to scrap the $50 million a year program, but to work on "improving outcomes," presumably by implementing more oversight and hiring more overseers. This, of course, will entail increasing the money Back to Work spends, but with no guarantee of improvement. Despite all this evidence of failure and waste of the monies put toward job training, the people in charge insist on it as the core of national poverty policy.

For rational thinking on the issue, you have to go backward. David Gil, recently retired from Brandeis University, and who worked on social policy issues for the past 60 years under several U.S. presidents, said this:

"In spite of the widely acknowledged structural causes of unemployment, there is nevertheless also a widespread belief that those who fail to adjust to the shifting 'demand' and the changes in skill requirements … and end up unemployed may be less fit, less eager to compete, and lazier than those who manage to secure jobs."

Our ideological belief in the superiority of paid work, and job training as a road to paid work, will not overcome the truth that systemic unemployment cannot be addressed with our tinkering.

And the insistence that every last one of us, even those with kids to care for, be in full-time work or full-time job training somewhere, has spurred another government expenditure: child care for the parents who have to report to these compulsory programs. At an average cost of $9,000 a year in New York state, institutional child care is unaffordable to low-income families. So federal taxes and state taxes have to pay most or all of the child care expense of the women they compel to go to job training. For the Back to Work program only, this means that federal and state subsidies conservatively spent $261 million for six months of child care for the Back to Work participants, in addition to the $53 million to $59 million annual program cost.

Forgive me for pointing out the obvious: that spending $10,000 for job training, plus $9,000 for child care, for a person on welfare to go through these programs, is wasteful. This mom could take care of her children far more inexpensively (for all of us) at home with her welfare check (about $7,000 a year maximum in New York state). It is also likely that she might do a very good job of it, seeing as she loves the child.

It is odd that at the same time that we are making it impossible for a parent to watch her own children, we also are running a public discourse about the importance of parents making time for their children. An example of this is the New York City campaign to get dads to spend time with their kids. The posters are all over the subway for the Citywide Fatherhood initiative. Yet in New York state, neither a child's mother nor his father is eligible to be the child's baby sitter under the subsidized child care regulation 18NYCRR 415.1. That we are willing to send the parent away, even when it makes no economic sense; and given all our talk about spending time with our kids, maybe no social sense, is a testament to how hard it is for us to change our beliefs around work.

For those who will insist that parents can't watch their own children because everybody "has to work," consider the words of Robert Theobald, who also wrote for decades about the economy and social well-being and began warning of the ills of the push for "full employment" and "work not welfare" way before job training became the mantra of U.S. poverty policy.

In 1967, observing the beginnings of work programs for welfare families, he warned, "The thought that parents might best be employed in bringing up their children rather than holding a job seems alien to this Congress ... . The worth of the average woman's work in the home is clearly greater than her work as a low-grade ... worker."

Of course it is notable that Theobald refers specifically to women, but this is logical given the year in which he was speaking. Fathers can also be considered candidates for caring for their own children rather than participating in compulsory job training programs. Job training should result in enhanced marketability and enhanced family income. It should improve a poor family's life. For the most part, it doesn't, and it doesn't while also being an absurd public expenditure that becomes more expensive each year. Back to Work last year cost $60 million, not $53 million, and was no more successful at getting people out of poverty in New York City.

One final point. Job training does not create actual jobs. When job training/subsidized jobs are over, they do not leave actual jobs in their wake. It is a fact that last month, our only national job growth came from a hiring campaign at McDonald's. Yet there are job training programs of all sorts, unrelated to food service, all over the nation, going on right now and they have been going on for over a decade under Welfare Reform. If job training spurred jobs, we'd have new employment sprouting up all over, including New York. Yet this is not the case. Job training is not social policy.

Licensed Master Social Worker Diane Pagen, of Delhi, is a caseworker, and a volunteer policy advocate for a federal refundable Caregiver Tax Credit with Social Agenda Inc.

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