The summit will be held two days before the November unemployment numbers are released, which will likely be no better than those for October and could very well be worse. In October, the unemployment rate was 10.2 percent, the highest since 1983. For some groups—African Americans, Hispanics, women who maintain families, and those with a high school education or less the rates are significantly higher. If these groups don’t get the help they need, the re-employment pattern will follow that of the last deep recession, and those suffering the most will be among the last to get new jobs.
Low-skill, low-wage workers who were employed before the recession could barely support their families, even by working full time. In the immediate future, their job prospects are slim since they may be competing with more qualified workers for available jobs. Ensuring that the jobs generated include positions that can be easily filled by those traditionally at the low end of the job market will help these workers get back on the job sooner. And for those who cannot find work, creating more ways to enhance their skills while unemployed will help them get better jobs in the future.
Some parts of the safety net are working well during this lengthy unemployment period. The extensions to unemployment insurance and the incentives for states to expand coverage seem to have reduced the proportion of the unemployed going without benefits. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as Food Stamps) is covering more people than in prior years, working as it is supposed to when times are hard. Yet, other parts of the safety net need attention. Seemingly adrift, the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program is not expanding systematically, as one might expect. Figuring out how these various pieces of the safety net might work together to help the unemployed and their families weather the early stages of the recovery would be useful. We need to know how these programs are faring in the short term but also how they might be improved before the next economic slowdown.
Some attention must also be given to jumpstarting job expansion where employment losses are heaviest. For example, Michigan had a 1 percent increase in employment during October, but those 38,000 new jobs barely dented unemployment rolls, which had shot up to over 700,000 people (not counting the many more who have given up looking for jobs). A summit goal should be learning how the strategies being developed through the Recovery for Auto Communities program can be applied, modified, or improved for use in the broader set of communities in distress.
A one-day summit is not going to solve the nation’s employment problems. But if, at the end of the day, participants can develop a sound framework for moving people back to work and on to better jobs, it will have accomplished its goal.