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For The Unemployed, Ideas To Help Bridge The Gap To Work

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When members of Congress return to work next week, at the top of the "to-do" list is whether to renew emergency unemployment benefits. An extension of the benefits expired at the end of 2013, which means 1.3 million out-of-work Americans are no longer getting unemployment checks.

But whether or not benefits are extended, conservative and liberal economists alike want to see the government improve the underlying program: They're proposing changes that might help more people find jobs more quickly.

Helping the unemployed get training while they're collecting benefits is one suggestion.

"Community colleges have been a good investment that have enabled people to get skills to get somewhat better paying jobs," says Dean Baker, co-director of the liberal-leaning Center for Economic and Policy Research. But he says many states don't do enough to support unemployed people getting that sort of training.

He'd also like to see more of what's called work sharing, where instead of laying off people, a company reduces hours for most workers. And for time they're not working, the government uses unemployment money to pay them. It's something that's reduced unemployment in Germany.

Some conservatives like this idea, too.

"I would like for Congress to make it mandatory," says Michael Strain, an economist with the American Enterprise Institute. He says Congress authorized this German-style work-sharing option for employers in 2012, but it's only up and running in some states. He says all states should give companies a work-sharing option and, like Baker, thinks the program hasn't been well-publicized.

Strain has other ideas, too. Some involve helping workers get to areas where there are more jobs.

"In some of the states, the labor market is booming and healthy, and unemployment is really low, so I've suggested that we offer relocation vouchers to the long-term unemployed — only to the people who want them, so no one is being forced to move or anything — but we say, 'Hey look, you've been looking for work for seven months and you haven't found one yet. Do you want us to cut you a check and you can move to North Dakota, or move somewhere where the labor market is much healthier, and where you may have a much better shot at getting a job?" Strain says.

He says he'd also like the government to pay for busing to help unemployed lower-wage workers who live way outside urban centers (in distant suburbs sometimes known as exurbs). He says free busing would help such job seekers afford to take jobs with farther commutes and closer to the hustle and bustle of major metro areas where they'd be more likely to find work.

But should lawmakers extend benefits when they come back next week? Strain says yes.

For one, he says, long-term unemployed workers are more likely to drop out of the workforce and give up if they get cut off — and there are still three times as many people looking for work as there are job openings. So that means hundreds of thousands of Americans just won't be able to find a job anytime soon.

"Society is failing for them, really through no fault of their own," Strain says.

Still, other conservatives oppose extending benefits again. They're worried about the cost, and say that workers would be looking more aggressively without the extended benefits.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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