Job-training: A federal boondoggle perfected in Baltimore

December 20, 1993|By Mona Charen

THE Wall Street Journal carried a front-page article the other day about the federal government's job-training octopus that is enough to make one weep. Actually, octopus is probably the wrong word, since octopi have only eight legs, whereas federal job-training programs have scores.

Two reporters, Kevin G. Salwen and Paulette Thomas, visited an employment and training "workshop" in Baltimore -- part of the Department of Agriculture's food-stamp employment-training program. The jobs counselor limply explained to her three charges (19 participants were expected to show up) that in order to continue receiving food stamps, they needed to apply for two dozen jobs in 60 days. Ten contacts must be in person. "This workshop counts as one," she explained. A visit to the state's employment bureau across the hall counts as two. Canvassing the shops down the street is another way to pad the list. "You just have to get through this," she says.

At a cost of $160 million per year to the taxpayers,this program is far from the most costly in the government's quiver. But it is, in the frank language of the Wall Street Journal, "money down the rat hole." Of 5,000 food-stamp recipients in the Baltimore area, only 1 percent got jobs through the program.

Other federal job-training programs have similarly dismal results, though they spend far greater amounts of money. The Department of Education alone runs 59 different job-training programs at a cost of $13 billion. The Labor Department has 34 programs totaling about $7 billion. And so it goes, with even the Appalachian Regional Commission weighing in with a $7.8 million program. According to the Wall Street Journal, a disabled person has his choice of 35 separately funded programs -- the poor may choose among 65 different education and training opportunities.

And they're not finished yet, not by a long shot. As part of the bargaining for the North American Free Trade Agreement, President Clinton has promised to create more job-training programs for those who lose their jobs as a consequence of the treaty (a tricky thing to establish, but never mind). And Labor Secretary Robert Reich may recommend a new payroll tax to fund an expansion of existing job-training programs to include a "dislocated worker" program that would provide job training and unemployment benefits for 18 months. (Eighteen months is long enough to get a master's degree, but again, never mind.)

The Food Stamp Employment and Training Program is a total flop. It is unnecessary (most food-stamp recipients are already eligible for half a dozen other federal training programs), and it is ineffective (two studies have so confirmed). Nevertheless, the program continues to receive funding and is likely to see nothing but increasing outlays in the years to come.

Why? Several reasons. In the first place, the creation of new federal programs, even redundant, wasteful, useless ones like these, also creates powerful constituencies on Capitol Hill. The saying goes that where there is a will, there is a relative. Similarly, where there is federal money, there is a subcommittee chairman taking credit for it.

But the second reason these programs proliferate is that they sound good. Most members of Congress vote without ever having read, far less studied, the legislation before them. Those who arrive in Washington with anything less than a profound aversion to government -- and that includes all Democrats and most Republicans -- wind up voting for things because they seem like good ideas.

If unemployment is a problem, why not train people for new jobs? Hey, great idea! It's such a great idea that the federal government has done it hundreds of times.

Only nit-pickers like the Wall Street Journal have the temerity to point out that the programs don't work. The Education Department helps to train 81,600 cosmetologists a year. But there is only a market for 17,000. The Job Training Partnership Act (former Sen. Dan Quayle's bill) actually led to lower wages among poor young men than among those who didn't participate.

John Zeller, who runs job-training programs in Maryland, told the Journal that the proliferation of programs that do not deliver on their promises "makes people cynical and disappoints them about government."

He said a mouthful.

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.

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