Since the recession officially began in December 2007, some 3.6 million Americans have been forced out of the workforce, pushing the total number over the 11 million mark. How can the unemployment insurance program, created at the height of the Great Depression, be fine-tuned to better serve this towering new wave of jobless men and women?
A modest proposal, but one that would make a real difference to the newly unemployed: Unemployment benefits should be bundled with Internet access.
Loss of income is the most obvious condition of unemployment. But those who are suddenly jobless also lose the connections -- economic, social, personal -- that are so vital to fighting their way back into the workforce. For the many that know how to use it, Internet access could help eliminate or at least alleviate many of those challenges.
At the most basic level, Internet access would simplify essential tasks such as filing initial and weekly claims for unemployment benefits; time saved there -- as opposed to commuting to and from unemployment offices, and waiting in lines there -- would mean more time to search for new employment. It would also give the jobless easier access the benefits available from nonprofits, connecting them with volunteers, and in turn enable those groups to better assess needs and deliver services.
Since the Internet has long been a practical necessity for job hunting, access for the unemployed is a natural fit. Intensive online job training programs, from basic skills to industry-specific advanced courses, could be streamed to recipients, allowing them to become more competitive in the job market. If free Internet access could shorten each person's period of unemployment by just a few weeks, the program would pay for itself.
Critical social connections could also be maintained. The unemployed could use the myriad communications tools available on the Internet to stay in touch with former coworkers (see, for example, the DHL alumni group on LinkedIn and other sites), and network for job leads. It would create opportunities for these workers to self-organize, and start up new businesses -- see http://laidoffcamp.pbwiki.com/, a new group that bands the unemployed together, and teaches them coping and empowerment skills. It might also allow the unemployed to make their voices heard more clearly, and help turn them into a more powerful political force.
Those same communications tools would also help the jobless avoid some of the anomie that often comes with unemployment. They could more easily maintain create and maintain the networks of support with family, friends, and those in similar straits, and thus more easily navigate their difficulties.
Free Internet for workers would also generate benefits for the organizations at the other end of the tunnel. When companies want to rehire from their former workforce, they could easily do so; companies looking for new hires could easily locate those workers who had an Internet presence. Government agencies would see their costs to provide services to the unemployed drop. They could also use their government access pages to establish feedback loops -- getting user input to help them plug holes and fix mistakes in their assistance programs.
Again, it's a modest proposal, and one that would have manageable costs in the context of the government's stimulus package. But the benefits would be tremendous. The workers have not changed, they are still smart, productive, brilliant engine of our future. Although, they have lost jobs and income, they should not lose access to the information, the connections and network ties that essential to jumpstarting the retraining, moving and innovation we are going to need in the new recovery. The faster the unemployed find work and get into positions where they create value others are willing to purchase, the faster the economy will recover.