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Will Congress give a boost to the long-term unemployed?

The Senate just passed legislation to provide better job training. But they're still unlikely to hand out direct aid to jobless Americans.
Recruiter Christina O takes an applicants resume during a job fair in Philadelphia, June 23, 2014.
Recruiter Christina O takes an applicants resume during a job fair in Philadelphia, June 23, 2014.

The long-term unemployed haven't gone away. Though their numbers are slowly shrinking, there are still nearly 3.4 million Americans who've been looking for work for more than six months. That's more than twice the number than before the financial crisis. 

Now Congress might act to help them—though not as much as some leading experts and advocates would like. 

Last week, the Senate quietly passed a bipartisan job-training bill on a 95-3 vote that could help jobless Americans get back into the workforce. The legislation is a reauthorization of the Workforce Investment Act, which first passed in 1998, but it would also make a handful of reforms to federal training programs.

The bill increases the employer involvement in the state and local boards that determine which programs get funded to help better connect training with the jobs that are actually in demand. It also eliminates a handful of ineffective or defunct federal programs and includes new performance metrics that focus more on credentials and industry-recognized certificates.

Harvard economist Lawrence Katz believes the legislation could help the long-term unemployed and other disadvantaged workers, pointing to "growing rigorous evidence" that programs that closely involve employers are effective. One major study that looked at programs in New York, Milwaukee and Boston found significant gains. "Net impacts on earnings were about $4,500 per participant over the 24-month period after random assignment, with about $4,000 in the second year, once training was completed," explains Georgetown public policy professor Harry Holzer.

Katz believes the Senate legislation could go further to improve federal training programs' performance standards and help participants navigate the system. Advocates for more job training, however, are generally enthused. Rachel Unruh, associate director for the National Skills Coalition, believes the Senate bill will build on White House programs that have also focused on involved employers.

"The alignment of these proven job-driven practices across congressional and administrative action is very good news for the long-term unemployed," Unruh says. 

But the outlook for the long-term unemployed still doesn't look great, given the anemic pace of the recovery, and more job-training would only do so much. "The long-term jobless remain at the end of the queue for finding work and the economy is not growing fast enough to make a huge dent," says Katz. 

Katz is among those who still believe that Congress should renew the federal employment benefits that expired in December, due to Republican resistance. Democratic Rep. Dan Kildee of Michigan and GOP Rep. Frank LoBiondo of New Jersey introduced yet another bill to bring back federal benefits, which kick in after state benefits expire. 

“There is a clear need to help those seeking employment get through this very stubborn, unstable economic recovery. Across South Jersey, I’ve heard from residents desperately looking for work as they struggle to feed their families or pay their bills,” LoBiondo said in a statement. 

More than 3.1 million long-term unemployed Americans have gotten cut off from federal benefits since the end of December. There's new evidence suggesting they are more likely to be depressed and commit suicide. Economists are also concerned that sustained unemployment could have a scarring effect on the economy further down the road.

Princeton economist Alan Krueger, a former Obama adviser, also supports more federal benefits that are contingent on job-search counseling, as well as a tax credit to employers hire the long-term unemployed. Krueger is particularly concerned that the end of federal assistance has prompted more long-term unemployed to stop looking for work entirely. 

"Over the last six months the long-term unemployed have withdrawn from the labor force at an increasing rate," Krueger says. "This is the typical pattern after a few years into a recovery, and the expiration of extended unemployment insurance benefits probably contributes to this trend."

No one expects Republican leaders to change their minds soon about federal benefits. But there is some hope that the job-training bill could pass. Republicans and Democrats from both chambers worked together on the legislation to pass the Senate. That's left lawmakers feeling more optimistic than usual about its prospects. 

“We had a House proposal, and we had a Senate proposal, and we met in the middle," Democratic Washington Sen. Patty Murray recently said on the floor.