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Baltimore's breadwinners need jobs [Commentary]

In his State of the Union speech last month, President Barack Obama charged Vice President Joe Biden to "lead an across-the-board reform of America's training programs to make sure they have one mission: Train Americans with the skills employers need and match them to good jobs that need to be filled right now."

We respectfully ask that Mr. Biden consider beginning in Baltimore and that he take the following into account:

We have learned a lot over past decades about the sort of training that moves people into jobs, the skills that employers say are essential to quality job performance and the damage that unemployment does to children in poor families.

Unfortunately we haven't paid enough attention to those lessons. The first of which is that people learn work skills best while on the job; the second is that "soft" skills like communication, collaboration and creative problem solving are essential additions to technical skills; and the third is that educating poor children is very expensive.

Recent studies by the Economic Policy Institute estimate that nearly one in five black workers was unemployed nationwide at some point in 2013. The unemployment rate in Baltimore, where 64 percent of the population is black, exceeds 9 percent, and that doesn't include those working part-time and/or working sporadically. Not coincidentally, a third of Baltimore's children under 18 live in poverty, and nearly two thirds of children live in households whose incomes are below 200 percent of the poverty level.

The best anti-poverty program for many of these families is a good job for the breadwinners. That means enough hours of work annually at an hourly pay rate that is high enough so that it, coupled with the Earned Income Tax Credit and other transfer benefits, would bring them above the local poverty line, which is about $20,000 for a family of three. It also means enough training to prepare them for even better unsubsidized jobs in the future.

Properly planned and carried out, such an approach would benefit the breadwinner, his or her children and the city. Work skills of the long-term unemployed would not atrophy, and those of all participants would increase. Their children would have a brighter future in school and life, and Baltimore would reduce some of its infrastructure and social service deficits. A training component, such as that contained in the apprenticeship model, should be part of each job so that people can achieve mastery in an occupation that will give them access to better jobs.

The idea of government-funded jobs of last resort is hardly new. Some versions surfaced when FDR was president in the 1930s. Forty years ago, the three authors of this article helped the Carter administration devise a program aimed at reforming welfare with jobs for all heads of families with children.

The situation has changed since the Carter days. Inflation in wages and prices is less of a threat than deflation. A substantial Earned Income Tax Credit is already in place, and the Affordable Care Act makes the issue of health benefits moot. Term limits already exist on receiving welfare. We are aware of the threats to middle class jobs from globalization and technological advancement. Infrastructure needs are more apparent. We know in better detail how poverty casts long-term shadows on children and how to better run apprentice programs. The nation is sensitive to the baleful effects of income inequality.

The new jobs would have to simultaneously avoid substituting lower-paid apprentices for better-paid unionized jobs while avoiding the evil twin of make-work. Accountability systems would have to show that the jobs yield worthwhile results. The new jobs need not — should not — mean government jobs. The best jobs will incorporate apprenticeships with private firms, public service, and not-for-profits. Moreover, the jobs provided under the program should decrease when full employment returns and better jobs become available.

Jobs, while reducing poverty in the short-run, would have long-term benefits that generate high returns on this investment. Reducing poverty can start children on a path to the middle class. Project New Hope succeeded in reducing poverty in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; it also showed that the children involved had fewer discipline problems in school.

Guaranteeing jobs to families with children would be a large departure from the past, and it makes sense to proceed cautiously. Vice President Biden: We believe Baltimore is the right place to test and evaluate this idea. Are you in?

The three writers were involved in the design of President Carter's Better Jobs and Incomes Program. Their email addresses are arnold.packer@gmail.com, jodieallen@att.net and blerman@urban.org.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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