Time to shore up safety net for the unemployed

March 01, 2004|By Cynthia Tucker

ATLANTA - Dissembling on the campaign trail is always easy.

So, for the two viable Democratic presidential candidates, it must be tempting to distort, to disguise, to demagogue, to look into the faces of desperate, jobless workers and pledge to fix everything - to bring back the good-paying jobs at American auto plants, to restore textile jobs by stopping Wal-Mart from importing bras from China, to penalize American credit card companies that send their call centers to India.

After all, the best chance for defeating President Bush is to promise to restore the 2.3 million jobs that vanished under his watch.

But any easy answer would surely be a lie. Most of those jobs are never coming back, no matter who is elected president.

To their credit, Sen. John Kerry and his rival, Sen. John Edwards, have backed away from easy answers. Mr. Edwards still rails against Mr. Kerry's support for NAFTA, but he admits that "NAFTA should exist." Mr. Kerry pledges to tinker with NAFTA, but he has told the United Auto Workers that manufacturing jobs will continue to flee the country.

(The president, meanwhile, is sticking to his story: His tax cuts have already brought about economic recovery, and for even more recovery, he's pledging to make those tax cuts permanent. It ought to be clear by now that the nation cannot withstand more of Mr. Bush's economic recovery program.)

Jobless Americans are the victims of tectonic shifts brought on by globalization, every bit as dramatic and unsettling as the shift from an agricultural economy to an industrial one 150 or so years ago. Facing such forces, the federal government cannot save the job of every American worker. But it can help save both his dignity and his ability to earn a living.

The Bush team, a cavalier bunch of wealthy and well-connected folk who have little experience with job loss, haven't done much to shore up the social safety net for unemployed workers. Since the Reagan era, the GOP's response to economic misfortune has been, "It's your own fault." Moreover, Mr. Bush's tax cuts and increased spending - which created a gargantuan deficit - have limited his ability to help the unemployed. Perhaps that's why he's busy trying to distract voters with the bogeyman of gay marriage.

By contrast, Mr. Kerry and Mr. Edwards propose rolling back tax cuts for the wealthy to pay for more job training, an expanded health care program for the less affluent and incentives to American companies for job creation. Mr. Kerry, for example, proposes pouring federal dollars into research on alternative fuels, which he says would decrease dependence on foreign oil reserves and create jobs in a budding industry.

The most rational proposals don't overpromise. Some middle-aged workers, for example, will probably have to accept easing gently into retirement with a lesser paycheck. A 50-year-old who loses her job at a cigarette plant may not be interested in job retraining, especially if the new job would require relocating to a distant city. But she may settle for part-time work or running a small business from her home. Federal policy ought to ensure that she has health care coverage until she qualifies for Medicare.

Younger jobless workers, however, should be encouraged to seek job retraining, even if they are college-educated. (Outsourcing has left highly educated financial analysts, accountants and software programmers, among others, out of work.) Federal funds could provide not only job training but also extended unemployment benefits and a temporary health care plan.

Then there's basic education itself. Two decades' worth of education reform proposals - from Washington and from the states - have failed to substantively improve academic achievement for children from poorer households. If all Americans were competent in basic literacy and math skills, retraining them in new industries would be much easier.

Nothing about the new global economy will be easy, and few people know that better than American workers who watch their jobs leave the country without them. Let's tell them something they won't hear from President Bush: Their country can help.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun.

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