Welfare, the Labor Market, and Public Policy No. 106
Real chances for a job at a living wage should always be a central concern. Welfare reform demands a policy breakthrough which bridges dignity and work, essential social supports to job creation and training.
Federal legislation to construct much-needed infrastructure would create jobs. Public works and public service jobs are vital to making welfare reform a tool to eliminate poverty. Such good jobs would also reduce the expanding number of "working poor" in our society.
An effective welfare-to-work continuum requires specific labor market information on the number of low-skilled unemployed, including welfare recipients and single adults. Job gap and skill gap data clearly point to the need for federal resources. The entry level labor market cannot absorb the welfare population -- especially after the job-ready have been creamed, and welfare time limits take effect. For example, there are 4 seekers per entry level job opening on average in Illinois (6-1 in Chicago). The gap in entry level jobs belies the state's vaunted prosperity. Cities nationwide reported similar numbers. The Urban Institute projects that creating enough entry level jobs for the poor at the current rate in New York City would take 21 years.
For the jobs available, an enormous chasm exists between the work qualification requirements and the skills of welfare recipients. Less than half of the caseload has a high school education; available jobs demand post-secondary and technical training. The welfare law provides no federal dollars for education or training; states lack the fiscal capacity. The Congressional Budget Office estimated that by 2002 states will be short $13 billion needed for meeting work requirements -- excluding childcare costs.
Appropriate federal action is indispensable. Infrastructure legislation would meet urgent needs for repair and maintenance; training consolidation legislation offers the possibility of long-needed linkage. All bills should cut through the bureaucratic and legislative barriers to welfare-to-work, providing sufficient funding.
An existing HUD mechanism can provide a bridge: Section 3 of the Housing & Urban Development Act requires job set-asides in HUD funded projects for residents. It has worked in Chicago -- 1000 jobs were provided at the Cabrini public housing complex.
In addition, ADA urges a massive expansion of federal public works programs, to rapidly repair our deteriorating bridges, tunnels, schools, parks, water and sewage treatment plants, and other public facilities while providing real jobs at living wages for tens of thousands of unemployed and under-employed people.
All new directives must include strong anti-displacement and wage protection provisions. Indeed, any local action taken should coordinate with living-wage campaigns. Economic justice demands concrete measures. Social and economic needs converge in the plight of the low-skilled unemployed. Congressional action is urgent.
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Social and Domestic Policy Commission