Originally published in the Wisconsin Examiner.
Tyrone in Milwaukee knows how difficult it can be to find a good job. The well-paying ones require an in-demand skill, but it’s hard to pursue training for those in-demand skills when you need to work.
“The problem with training is that you don’t get paid and you have bills to pay,” he says.
Eighteen months after the largest job losses in U.S. history, unemployment is still high as workers, particularly Black and Hispanic workers, continue to struggle. Individual states and the federal government have already begun to cut off crucial supports for unemployed job-seekers. So while some indicators suggest the economy continues to recover, that recovery is uneven and fragile.
It’s common for Black and brown workers to have trouble finding quality jobs for the reasons Tyrone describes. The systemic barriers that kept many workers from adequate employment before the pandemic—such as lack of child care and transportation, or discrimination from employers—continue to stand in the way of many workers finding jobs. America urgently needs a solution that supports workers, employers and communities alike, without leaving anyone behind.
One proven and adaptable strategy that policymakers at all levels of government can mobilize now is subsidized employment. Tyrone found an opportunity with the Coalition on Lead Emergency (COLE), which offers subsidized employment and skills training for lead abatement workers. He is participating in the program to put him on a stable career path after not finding other ways forward. “This will create access for me and open more doors for me,” Tyrone says.
A national subsidized employment program similar to COLE can create the jobs we need right now for workers like Tyrone who are struggling to get hired. In addition to supplementing workers’ wages with government funds, subsidized employment programs work because they offer the vital “wrap-around” supports like child care, transportation, legal aid, mental health, and other services that help workers thrive in the labor market.
We have decades of successful examples to draw on and adapt to meet today’s challenges. One of us, Julie Kerksick, helped develop and manage one of the most successful programs that relied on subsidized jobs: Milwaukee’s New Hope Project in the mid-1990s. New Hope connected workers with vital work opportunities and supports like health care and child care. The effort not only reduced unemployment and poverty for years, but improved well-being and long-term outcomes for children and parents alike, including mental health and school achievement.
As we explain in our new brief, “Lessons from New Hope: Updating the Social Contract for Working Families,” policymakers can and should replicate this groundbreaking intervention for today’s workers and their families. Subsidized employment has also historically enjoyed bipartisan support: in the aftermath of the 2007-2009 financial crisis, 39 states and Washington, D.C. used TANF emergency fund dollars to rapidly stand up subsidized jobs programs that employed more than of 260,000 jobseekers.
Subsidized jobs can help bridge the gap between unemployment benefits and longer-term employment. That’s crucial, because 7.5 million workers’ federal pandemic unemployment benefits recently expired, leaving them without any assistance to make ends meet as the delta variant further complicates economic recovery.
While we need to establish a permanent unemployment assistance system worthy of America’s workers, as we’ve seen in the past 18 months, some workers will exhaust benefits—especially in a crisis like this current pandemic. We can quickly implement a new, national subsidized employment program to support workers as they navigate the recent expiration of federal pandemic unemployment benefits.
The Biden administration recently declared support for a new national subsidized jobs program through the American Jobs Plan proposal, and included funding for it in its budget—making now the right time politically to implement such a program.
Establishing new national subsidized employment programs could offer a number of benefits for families, employers, and society. For workers, subsidized jobs can boost income, employment, and overall well-being, especially for Black and Latin American workers. They can also help families: participating workers’ children can experience improved school outcomes, lowered criminal legal system involvement, and reduced long-term poverty rates. An approach like New Hope’s would help connect workers and their families with supports like child care and job preparation that are essential for advancing into unsubsidized, higher-paying, high-quality jobs.
A worker-focused package of policies including subsidized employment with related benefits can support struggling workers through this recovery and beyond. While states and localities can use American Rescue Plan funds to facilitate local subsidized employment programs, a permanent national subsidized jobs program in the model of leading Congressional proposals—like the Jobs for Economic Recovery Act or Long-Term Unemployment Elimination Act—would build upon the lasting lessons of New Hope and nearly a half-century’s worth of other evidence.
Employers and society at large will benefit, too. Small businesses trying to get back on their feet can grow; communities can get new jobs and revitalized local industries; and states can enjoy a more productive workforce, higher tax revenues, lower public spending, and stronger local economies. As policymakers aim to ensure that our nation comes out of this pandemic stronger than we were when we entered it, a new national subsidized jobs program is key to building an American economy that works for all, especially workers like Tyrone who are struggling most to find stable employment.