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Elisabeth Mason Headshot

From Safety Net To Springboard

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Millions of Americans have cycled through a series of "miracle" diets (I'm one of them). Most promise quick but lasting results. And often one diet's sacred premise is another's sacrilege.

After a while you may (like me) conclude that the radical weight loss solution is... exercise more and eat less.

Our thinking on jobs has become a little like our thinking on diets. It has certainly provided a bunch of empty calories to the national discourse. The problem is that, in our zeal for magic fixes, we sometimes ignore obvious choices.

Don't get me wrong: We've generated some great new ideas for finding the right training programs for employees, and matching them with the right jobs.

But, with due respect for these new ideas, are we forgetting a few old ones?

Let's not just answer the question about what new ways we can come up with to address unemployment. Let's question the question: Is there anything out there that can help solve our jobs crisis and also propel us to the 21st-century version of broad-based progress that we enjoyed in the middle part of the 20th? Can we use the overlooked architecture of the last century's prosperity to lay the foundation for success in this one?

There is indeed. In fact there are two powerful forces that could do great good.

First of all, there's the series of economic supports that kick in to help the needier among us: the Earned Income Tax Credit, TANF, SNAP ( better known as food stamps), Medicaid, and other federal and state programs.

These form a social Safety Net designed to keep the hard-working but hard-up from going hungry or homeless. It's obviously far from perfect, but it's considerably better than nothing. When properly used, it can make the difference between giving up and getting ahead.

What can the venerable Safety Net possibly have to do with job creation? As it turns out, a great deal. Because we can harness the Safety Net to work in tandem with the second old idea at play here: the great American community college system.

Americans have benefited from community colleges for decades. They became a critical vehicle for teaching the skills we needed to thrive in the golden age of what we fondly call the American Century.

Community colleges remain a vital venue for equipping us with the skills required in 21st-century jobs, as Matt Sledge noted in his recent post ("Carmakers, Community Colleges, Launch Curriculum for Skilled Workers").

So why do we still have an unemployment crisis? Why do we still have a 3.4 million jobs-to-skills deficit that contributes to it?

One major reason is that more than half of the nation's 12 million+ community college students end up dropping out. They don't drop out because they're baffled by the coursework or bored by the prospect of success. Many drop out simply because they can't afford to stay in.

Community colleges are an attractive option for people whose families don't have the means to spring for the (now stratospheric) tuition rates of the alternatives.

But that means many community college students have to hold down a job or two while they try to complete their studies. Before they know it, subsisting gets in the way of their degree. They literally have to choose between groceries and graduation.

It need not be this way. Millions of these students are eligible for the help that the Safety Net provides. But a staggering number of them don't realize that they are, or in any event don't avail themselves of all the Safety Net's benefits.

Studies show that even a small amount of additional help greatly increases the ability of community college students to stay in school. Why not use the Safety Net's funds to provide this help?

We still think of the Safety Net as something to protect people who've fallen on hard times from falling farther and harder still. It's certainly that, and we should be under no illusions about how much worse off millions of Americans would be in this crisis without it.

But it can also be much more than that. It can be a springboard from which people in a tough economic climate can rise up to meet the qualifications for, and master the skills of, a demanding global job market. Billions of Safety Net dollars could be redeployed to this end.

Connecting students to these resources is not rocket science. It's a logistics problem that we can readily solve. And solving it means equipping millions more students with the job skills they need, and giving them a shot at sustainable economic security.

So what on earth are we waiting for?

This used to be what it meant to be American. This used to be the way we kept our promise of economic progress and social mobility. Has it really been so long that we've forgotten how to do that? Are we so determined to be myopic that we leave a skills gap to another generation?

We have a straightforward chance to close that gap and reopen the doors to social mobility. This is the kind of situation for which the hackneyed phrase "win-win" was invented.

Maybe it's because it's too obvious -- staring us in the face, just like the advice our doctor gave us to quit the fad diet and head for the sit-up bench and salad bar.

Winston Churchill (reliably good for a quote) once said: "Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing... after they have exhausted all other possibilities."

Let's prove him right. A better-educated workforce, filling the millions of high-skills jobs that our 21st-century economy creates? Sounds to me as American as (a nutritious) apple pie.