Jobs: a January thaw

The sharp fall in the US jobless rate - from 10.8 percent to 10.4 percent - can only come as welcome news to the Reagan administration. Indeed the figures for the month of January suggest that the long-awaited economic recovery may at last be underway. Some economists even ask whether the recovery may not be more vigorous than assumed by the administration. The normally cautious Congressional Budget Office estimates that the economy will grow by 4 percent in 1983, compared to the administration's estimate of 3.1 percent.

Figures for one month do not, of course, constitute a turnaround. There is always the possibility that future monthly unemployment will spurt upward again, since the jobless rate tends to lag behind recovery during the final stages of a recession. And both the administration and the CBO forecast that unemployment will hover in the 10 percent range right through next year. So while all Americans can be relieved to hear CBO director Alice Rivlin say that the recession ''is ending,'' the new figures should be viewed with a degree of caution.

The immediate effect of the drop in unemployment is to raise questions about the extent of a new jobs program now being discussed on both sides of the political aisle in Washington. The White House will use the new figures to bolster its argument that such a new program is unnecessary. Democrats will point to administration projections of high joblessness extending through next year as proof that such a new program is needed.

What is surely not needed, if in fact the recession is coming to an end, is a costly program that would merely put persons into dead-end, make-work jobs. That is not to say that a modestly funded, well-crafted program is not in order. A new $2 billion to $5 billion program geared to retraining and relocation of workers now in declining industries may have as much impact in restoring general consumer confidence as actually providing new jobs. Consumer confidence is vital to triggering consumer spending, since studies show that many Americans now employed are fearful of losing their jobs and therefore are reluctant to go out and spend.

Still, the economic challenge goes beyond short-term jobs programs. The need is to ensure a gradual and sustained recovery that itself will result in many workers being called back to their former jobs. The role of the Federal Reserve Board in providing steady monetary growth thus becomes as crucial as any short-term steps taken by Congress on the jobs front. It is important to recognize that the current downturn is to a large extent a structural recession linked to high joblessness in the nation's traditional manufacturing industries such as steel and autos. Despite the slump in primary manufacturing, the US is currently employing some 56.7 percent of its total adult population, which is only slightly below the pre-recession high of 57 percent back in 1973.

A guarded cheer, then, for the new unemployment figures, provided that the longer-range challenges are not overlooked.

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