JOBS FOR ALL COALITION
SENSE 15 © rev. March 2000
MANY JOBS ARE THERE?*
THE NEED FOR A NATIONAL
JOB VACANCY SURVEY
Philip Harvey, Associate Professor
of Law, Rutgers University School of Law(Camden), and Advisory
Board, National Jobs for All Coalition.
Welfare reform legislation enacted by Congress in 1996 is supposed
to end welfare dependency by forcing welfare recipients into the
labor force. The new law has been hailed as an unqualified success
by its supporters because of rapidly declining welfare rolls,
but troubling doubts remain concerning the nature of this "success."
First, it's not clear that the labor market really is absorbing
the former recipient population. One study found that only 61
percent of persons who left the welfare rolls in 1996 and 1997
were employed at the time they were surveyed. Fourteen percent
were not working but had an employed spouse or partner. Twenty-five
percent were not working and either had no spouse/partner or their
spouse/partner was also not employed. [Pamela Loprest, Families
Who Left Welfare: Who Are They and How Are They Doing, 9-10
(Urban Institute Discussion Paper 99-02, 1999)]. Given these facts,
it is not surprising that the poorest cohorts of single-mother
families have been growing poorer since welfare reform was enacted,
despite the booming economy. [See Wendell Primus, et al., The
Initial Impacts of Welfare Reform on the Incomes of Single-Mother
Families (Center on Budget and Policies Priorities, 1999).]
Second, even if welfare reform is deemed a success under current
economic conditions, it may not work when the economy is in recession
or if unemployment rates rise above current levels.
Both of these concerns point to the same question. Does the
economy produce enough jobs to make it reasonable to expect all
able-bodied persons to be self-supporting? Conservatives assume
that there are. Liberals disagree, although it's not clear whether
they think the problem is a lack of jobs in general, or just a
lack of "good" jobs.
What are the facts? How many unfilled jobs are there in the
economy at any time? Where are they located? Are the openings
for full-time or part-time workers? What do they pay? What benefits
do they offer? What qualifications must workers have to fill them?
At present, we dont know.
These are the questions that people should want answered, regardless
of their political leanings, before deciding what kind of public
assistance programs should be offered. Knowing the answers to
these questions wouldn't settle all disagreements, but it would
increase the likelihood that reforms would be
designed for the real world rather than an imaginary one.
Unfortunately, neither Congress nor the President thought it
necessary to answer these questions before adopting a "reform"
strategy which assumes that jobs are available for welfare recipients.
Other Countries Collect Job Vacancy Data
Other countries do collect and report job vacancy data. In some,
like Japan and Sweden, employers are required by law to list job
vacancies with public employment services. The purpose of this
requirement is to improve labor market efficiency by making it
easier for employers to find appropriate job candidates and for
job seekers to find appropriate job openings. In addition, however,
the listings provide detailed information about the number, type
and location of available job openings. In countries where employers
are not required to list their job openings with a public employment
service, equivalent data can be obtained from surveys of employers.
Germany and Italy routinely collect job vacancy data using this
What Would A Job Vacancy Survey Require?
The federal government currently collects and reports detailed
unemployment statistics by surveying a representative sample of
households in every state as well as the District of Columbia
each month. Based on this survey, we know a great deal about both
the number and the personal characteristics of the nations
job-seekers. No corresponding data are collected or reported concerning
job openings. A job vacancy survey would collect such data from
a representative sample of employers concerning the job openings
they currently are seeking to fill. These data could tell us not
only how many job openings employers need to fill but also whether
those jobs are full or part-time, their occupational type, their
location, the educational and job experience required to fill
them, and the wages and benefits being offered.
In fact, employers already are surveyed to collect information
about their current employees--how many people they employ, what
kind of work they do, the hours they work, and how much they are
paid. They simply are not asked about the number of job vacancies
they are seeking to fill.
Job vacancy surveys covering portions of the United States labor
market have occasionally been conducted. A vacancy survey covering
the Milwaukee, Wisconsin region is conducted twice a year by the
Employment and Training Institute of the University of Wisconsin/Milwaukee.
The Department of Labor recently funded similar surveys, on a
one-time basis, in seven other local labor markets around the
country. More significantly, the Bureau of Labor Statistics is
currently planning the possible inauguration of a national job
vacancy and turnover survey. This proposed national survey would
not provide local job vacancy data, but it would clarify the job
availability picture on the national level.
Food Stamp Work Requirements Waived If Jobs Unavailable
In the portion of the 1996 welfare reform act pertaining to
food stamps, Congress acknowledged that it does not make sense
to require people to work for their benefits when the economy
isn't providing enough jobs. Section 824 of the law (PL 014-193)
gives the federal government the authority to waive minimum work
requirements for the Food Stamp program in certain areas if there
aren't enough jobs to provide work for everyone in the program
who is expected to work. Waivers can be granted with respect to
"any group of individuals" but only when states ask
for them and only if the federal government determines that "the
area in which the individuals reside--(i) has an unemployment
rate of over 10 per-cent; or (ii) does not have a sufficient number
of jobs to provide employment for the individuals."
Unfortunately, no similar provision allows either the states
or the federal government to suspend work requirements in other
federally-assisted public assistance programs. This is particularly
regrettable in the case of family assistance benefits. The law
should be amended to extend the Food Stamp waiver provision described
above to all such programs.
What Does The Milwaukee Job Vacancy Survey Show?
Milwaukees job vacancy survey shows what we can learn
from this kind of data. In May 1994, the Milwaukee economy had
an unemployment rate of 4.1%, the same level enjoyed by the United
States economy as a whole at the end of 1999. Were there enough
jobs for everyone who wanted to work? The Milwaukee job vacancy
survey provides strong evidence that there were not.
According to the survey, area employers were seeking to fill
16,970 full-time and 13,845 part-time jobs, a total of roughly
31 thousand, during the week of May 23, 1994. The wages for these
jobs were relatively low. The median wage of the full-time openings
was less than $7 per hour and that of the part-time openings close
to $5 per hour. ($7 per hour amounted to an annual income of $14,560
per year for a full-time worker when the poverty standard for
a family of four was $15,141 in 1994.) Jobs paying $12 per hour
or more accounted for only 14 percent of the full-time openings
and less than 3 percent of the part-time openings. Despite these
wage levels, most of the jobs required some educational achievement
and/or prior work experience. Job seekers who lacked a high school
diploma or relevant prior work experience could qualify for only
24 percent of the full-time openings and 62 percent of the part-time
Comparing numbers of available jobs with numbers of job-seekers
in the region gives us a much better picture of the Milwaukee
area labor market than unemployment data alone. At this time,
about 32 thousand area residents were officially unemployed, most
of whom were probably looking for full-time (rather than part-time)
work. Based on national averages, there probably were also about
19 thousand involuntary part-time workers in the area (people
who were working part-time not by choice but because they could
not find full-time jobs) and perhaps another 18 hundred "discouraged"
workers (people who wanted jobs, had looked for work in the past
year, but had given up looking because of discouragement over
their job prospects). Finally, if welfare recipients not already
counted as unemployed were included, another 23 thousand people
in the Milwaukee area needed jobs. Altogether, there were probably
a total of 75 thousand people needing full-time or part-time jobs
in the Milwaukee area in May 1994. Compare this with the 31 thousand
available jobs. Simply stated, there weren't half enough jobs,
even low-paying jobs, to go around.
For residents of depressed neighborhoods, the job shortage was
far worse. In the suburbs surrounding Milwaukee, there were more
job vacancies than job seekers, if we include part-time jobs.
Approximately 70 percent of all full-time vacancies and 81 percent
of all part-time vacancies were in the suburbs, but only 44 percent
of the areas officially unemployed workers lived there.
In the city of Milwaukee, where 18 thousand of the area's officially
unemployed workers lived (along with the vast majority of the
23 thousand welfare recipients not counted as unemployed), there
were fewer than 5 thousand full-time and only about half that
many part-time job vacancies.
Earlier job vacancy surveys confirm the picture presented by
the Milwaukee data. In good times as well as bad, there aren't
enough jobs of any kind to provide work for those already seeking
it, let alone for everyone the public thinks should be working.
This does not mean that it is impossible for welfare
recipients to find work. With enough diligence, patience and help,
most of them probably can. But it is foolish to think that the
need for welfare would be ended even if all welfare recipients
succeeded in this effort. Unless an equal number of new jobs were
created, every newly employed welfare recipient would leave someone
else without work but with more job seekers for a fixed number
of jobs, wages are likely to fall. From these ranks of jobless
individuals we could expect the nation's welfare rolls to be replenished.
Who do the supporters of current welfare reform initiatives think
should go without work, so that welfare recipients can be employed?
Vacancy data are the kind of information the public needs to
assess welfare proposals rationally. The nation's welfare reform
debate has relied for too long on vague assumptions about job
availability when hard data could have been obtained. Support
for the establishment of national and local job vacancy surveys
capable of providing detailed information about the number, characteristics
and location of available jobs on a regular basis should be a
high priority for all participants in welfare reform policy debates.
Job vacancy data would provide information for a broad range
of uses beyond welfare reform. Students could better plan their
careers. Civil rights advocates could more easily track patterns
of job availability in minority communities. Businesses making
investment decisions and designing training programs would have
more information about labor demand. So would community organizations
and local governments planning economic development initiatives.
National economic policy could also benefit from job vacancy
data. Current assumptions about job availability would be tested,
and the effects of policy choices on job availability would be
easier to track. Training programs could be better designed to
match demand for skills. The vacancy rate may also be a better
indicator of inflationary buildup than the unemployment rate [James
Medoff and Andrew Harless, The Indebted Society, p. 60]
In all these ways, job vacancy data could help efforts to expand
job opportunities, enhance productivity, reduce inflationary pressures,
and achieve genuine full employment.
*Thanks in part to the Coalition's work,
the Dept. of Labor now issues vacancy statistics. The series began in December 2000. See monthly
updates in http://www.njfac.org/jobnews.html.
Editor: June Zaccone, Economics (Emer.), Hofstra University