As of Thursday, about one in every four American workers has filed for unemployment, a statistic that has more in common with the Great Depression than with our last major recession. The pandemic is responsible for unusual stress. Businesses can’t reopen, at least not for a while; restrictions on movement and social gathering inflict further economic distress. Our circumstances might feel familiar, but they’re worse by far.
Perhaps, then, the time calls for imagination and creativity to scale our solutions to the size of the problem: a more muscular paycheck-protection program, like those in Western Europe; monthly stimulus checks until the crisis ends; a massive jobs program to hire and train workers for sanitation and contact tracing. Or maybe even more sweeping, permanent changes: with a universal basic income, a federal jobs guarantee, and Medicare for All. Alternatively, we could pretend this is still 2008.
According to CNBC, the bipartisan proposal would “make a fully refundable $4,000 tax credit available to people who lost their jobs due to the outbreak.” Recipients could use it “to offset costs of training such as apprenticeships, certificates and two- and four-year programs, including online learning, through the end of 2021,” the report continued. It’s the sort of proposal that would delight a wonk like Kessler, who is the executive vice-president for policy at the centrist Third Way think tank. It also isn’t very useful.
This recession is not a skills crisis. (Neither was the recession of 2008.) Our woes were created by a pandemic, not a skills gap. Nobody will fix unemployment by teaching laid-off bartenders how to code. The jobs aren’t there right now, and they won’t exist post-pandemic without massive bailouts from the federal government — basically, a handout, the archenemy of Republicans and centrist Democrats alike. What people need most at the moment is money. A lot of it, and right away, so they can keep feeding themselves and their families. If they decide they need to use that money for another degree or certificate, then that’s how they’ll use it, but skills retraining is likely not a priority for most workers right now. Nor should it be.
And really, we should all know better by now! The notion that the unemployed could simply retrain for other, more in-demand jobs captivated wonks and lawmakers alike during the recession and afterward, but there’s no reliable evidence that these programs reliably work. In some respects their dysfunction might stem from the patchwork nature of the retraining programs the government currently has in place. “In the 2009 fiscal year, the Government Accountability Office counted 47 different federal training-related programs administered by nine agencies, numbers Republicans have since used to argue that many of the programs were redundant,” Ruth Graham reported for The New York Times Magazine in 2017. President Barack Obama later signed legislation to try to streamline the government’s offerings, as Graham notes, but problems remained. Retraining programs might help some workers, but they don’t actually create jobs, and historically, that left some vulnerable people behind.
The retraining fixation suffers from one central flaw. It treats workers as though they aren’t people but robots, who can be reprogrammed and reassigned with ease. Life is more complicated, and so are people. A worker could learn new skills, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be able to relocate for a job. In-demand jobs may require skills that take years to master, beyond the achievement of a degree or certificate, and that is time that struggling people might not have. Older workers can find themselves at a particular disadvantage, subject both to age discrimination in hiring and basic physical constraints. And $4,000 doesn’t pay for much school these days. If this bipartisan squad really wants to help workers get back to school, they’re better off passing a bill for free public college.
Or at least give people money, and get out of the way.