Aside from hiring 400,000 workers to carry out the federal census, which is a happy coincidence of timing more than make-work, the Obama administration has not initiated any national employment programs like Franklin Roosevelt’s administration did in the New Deal. No Conservation Corps to plant trees, maintain the national parks, or, gulp, help the Coast Guard cleanup oil spills.
Economists have said that federal assistance to states and local governments is the best way to stimulate nationwide job creation. Incentives for small businesses, which create the most new jobs, are also effective. The idea is to stimulate the economy so that real growth, not make-work, can pull us out of the recession.
I do not dispute that approach. However, many states with sky-high budget deficits have used the federal money to maintain jobs and services rather than to create new ones. That policy has led to disparities. For instance, workers who lost their jobs and applied for unemployment months ago have received protracted federal extensions on their benefits, well beyond the norm. But young workers, yet to find employment, have been left to fend for themselves.
What if the federal government could stimulate particular kinds of job creation, tailored both to the nation’s current needs and its long-term goals? That might help to fix a gaping hole in our capitalist system. It is that capitalism financially rewards new ideas, many of which are of questionable merit (a faster drip coffee filter or another talk show), while huge national problems go unresolved: a national shortage of nurses or legal agricultural workers, to name two. The law of supply and demand is supposed to solve such problems, but it hasn’t. That’s where good government ought to step in, especially in hard times.
Consider four goals where government incentives could help:
• Improved health care: Given the national shortage of nurses, physicians in general practice and gerontologists, the government should offer incentives to entice students to take up these professions--like lower interest rates on their student loans or debt forgiveness in exchange for specified service upon graduation. Incentives could also encourage practicing nurses to study gerontology as a specialty or apply to medical school. Other important jobs in health care could be professionalized with the help of incentives: standardized training for home health aids, midwives, administrators of small clinics and rest homes. Larger grants could be made in regions where the need is greatest. The government would not hire these workers, but would ensure that there are enough of them to promote a healthy, aging population.
• Higher proficiency in English: Too many Americans lack the English-language skills they need to get a good job, participate in the national community, and execute the requirements of good citizenship. The government could provide incentives to solve this problem. Unemployed college graduates, experienced teachers and others with the skills—like those in Americorps and Teach for America—could tutor children, teens and adults in English. I’m envisioning a national campaign the goal of which is to increase significantly the English fluency of all Americans, regardless of age, national origin or income. Low-cost or free lessons could also be offered in churches, shopping malls, prisons and other venues.
• Energy-Efficient offices and homes: Upgrading has been talked about for months and may yet become part of an energy bill, if one makes its way onto the Congressional agenda soon. Why not offer incentives to those who train workers in making these upgrades and to all who hire them? Incentives could go to states, local governments, small businesses (including non-profits) and others. Special incentives could go to programs that focus on training and employing youths in inner cities and in rural areas where jobs are scarce. Small performance bonuses for individuals who complete the training program and work for one or two years could also be part of the incentive package. Why reserve bonuses to Wall Street?
• Sound infrastructure: Stimulus monies have already been granted to states for major projects like highways, bridges, high-speed trains and the like. But these massive projects take time to roll out. Eventually they will create jobs. I mention this only to remind readers that the federal government has done some long-term thinking in this respect and deserves credit for it. The jobs will come.
Karen Sue Smith