Congress throws a bone to the long-term unemployed

About 1,500 people seeking employment wait in line to enter a job fair, March 28, 2014 in Washington, D.C.
About 1,500 people seeking employment wait in line to enter a job fair, March 28, 2014 in Washington, D.C.

In an unusual display of bipartisanship for the current Congress, the House overwhelmingly passed a job-training bill on Wednesday that could help unemployed Americans get back into the workforce.

The bill, which passed the Senate in June and sailed through the House on a 415-6 vote, is headed to President Obama's desk to be signed into law.

The legislation will streamline federal job-training programs and give private employers a more active role in deciding which programs get funded, aiming to give participants the skills for jobs that are currently in demand. Though overhaul isn't specifically designed to help the long-term unemployed, both economists and advocates believe it could help some of the jobless find work again. 

"We are very encouraged to see a bi-partisan, bi-cameral agreement, that was widely praised by advocates, too, aimed at improving conditions for workers – it’s heartening to see that Congress can actually come together and do something important and beneficial for workers who are either struggling to get by, or who are in need of training and assistance to better themselves," says Judy Conti, federal advocacy coordinator for the National Employment Law Project.

Leaders from both parties also cheered the bill's passage. 

“Today is a good day for the American people. We’ve shown what’s possible when we work together toward a common goal and right now there is no greater goal than putting Americans back to work,” GOP Rep. John Kline, chair of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said in a statement. 

“In my district in South Texas we have seen how these programs are successful in training our workforce and getting our residents back into good paying jobs," said Democratic Rep. Rubén Hinojosa, who also worked on the legislation.

It's a rare bipartisan breakthrough, particularly on an issue that affects jobless Americans. Republicans have steadfastly refused to extend federal benefits for the long-term unemployed, which expired in late December. But experts believe it will have only a modest impact on the long-term unemployed.

Though their ranks have declined, there are still almost 3.4 million Americans who've been looking for work for longer than six months -- far above pre-recession levels. And there's evidence that job-training alone won't be enough to bring large numbers of them back into the workforce: When employers cite a skill shortage, they are often looking for more experience, not sheer knowledge, argues Peter Cappelli, an economist at the Wharton Center for Human Resources.

Conti agrees. "I’m sure it will benefit some of the long-term unemployed, but we shouldn’t overplay its significance on that population," she says, urging Congress to reinstate federal jobless benefits, provide more services, and subsidize jobs for the long-term unemployed.