by Wilhelmina A. Leigh, Ph.D.
“If you think the system is working, ask someone who isn’t.” Acting on this bumper-sticker advice by surveying people who are not working reveals not only their anguish and depression about being unemployed, but also their belief that the labor market system, and particularly government employment services, are broken and must be fixed. The American Jobs Act of 2011, recent legislation developed by the Obama administration, offers ways to fix this system.
Unemployed workers surveyed in both 2008 (Peter D. Hart Research Associates, Inc., for the National Employment Law Project) and 2009 (Knowledge Networks for the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University) agreed that the public workforce system is broken. In addition, the system has been found to contribute to longstanding racial/ethnic disparities in the labor market, such as those reflected in the September 2011 unemployment rates among African Americans (16.0 percent), Hispanics (11.3 percent), and whites (8.0 percent). A 2005 Joint Center study entitled A Mixed Record found that the public workforce system had just that kind of record in providing jobs for African Americans and Hispanics. By every performance measure associated with Workforce Investment Act (WIA) programs (the centerpiece of the public workforce system), adult programs were found to be less successful for blacks and Hispanics than for whites and Asians. Another study finding—that black and Hispanic WIA adult populations were less likely than whites to receive WIA training services—may help explain these differentials. The WIA Dislocated Worker program, on the other hand, was equally successful for blacks, Hispanics and whites.
Elements of the American Jobs Act of 2011 could create a more even-handed public workforce system. The Act explicitly prohibits discrimination by employers and employment agencies on the basis of an individual’s status as unemployed (Title III, Subtitle D, “Fair Employment Opportunity Act of 2011”). If rigorously enforced, this Act could narrow the persistent unemployment rate gaps between people of color and whites. Along with the “stick” of prohibiting discrimination on the basis of employment status, another provision (Title III, Subtitle B) would offer a “carrot” to employers to hire the long-term unemployed. Employers who hire individuals who have been unemployed at least six months would be eligible for a maximum tax credit of $4,000.
Yes, people who are not working think the public workforce system is not working, either. In addition, people of color who are not working achieve mixed outcomes from this system. Features of the American Jobs Act of 2011—specifically, its mandate not to discriminate against the unemployed and its incentive to hire the long-term unemployed—could go a long way toward resolving these problems.