Every Problem Isn't A Nail. Job Training Is Always A Hammer.

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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 called the Seniors Offering Quality Child Care Act, HR 335. Why should all those seniors sit around helping their own families and grandkids? They can be “trained” to work in day care centers (as if most seniors know nothing about raising children). While this bill makes me feel sorry for seniors, my biggest concern is 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. Their commissioner of social services, Jack Frech, wanted to use the money to increase monthly cash assistance. But 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. Mom 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 their cash benefits.

Neither Democrats nor Republicans have talked about the waste of funds on job training at any point in the budget discussions. In 2009, the NYC Independent Budget Office studied a job training program called Back to Work. It said that Back to Work spent $54 million in 2008. It began with 143,000 clients, but the screening process reduced the pool to 57,000. The 57,000 (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. In other words, a $54 million-dollar program resulted in 5,400 people getting stable jobs–crudely, this calculates to $10,000 a job. This makes as much sense as paying a headhunter $10,000 to find you a job in Walmart.

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 sixty 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 NY 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.

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 NY 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 NYC campaign to get dads to spend time with their kids. The posters are all over the subway for the Citywide Fatherhood initiative. Yet in NY state, neither a child’s mother nor his father are eligible to be the child’s babysitter.

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” well 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.

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. 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. This is not the case.

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