TARGET your effort and money on the neediest. That's the majority view in Washington on the best way to deal with America's poor when the government's wallet is thin, as it is now.
Nowhere is this philosophy better illustrated than in the current revisions under way in America's key job-training law, the Job Training Partnership Act.
Now wending their way through Congress are broadly supported proposals that would target much more of the program's funds on adults and youths who face the greatest obstacles in getting and holding a job.
Typically these are people with little education, no work experience, and several personal problems. Frequently they exhibit little motivation to change.
Critics charge that heretofore the program too often aided people with the least need: those with considerable education and work experience who, they say, probably would have landed work on their own.
Since these kinds of unemployed require little assistance, such an approach provides impressive figures on numbers of people helped. But it does little to prevent development of a growing and frustrated underclass, ill-equipped to handle the increasingly technical tasks of today's and tomorrow's jobs.
The turnaround that's coming in the jobs program parallels last year's change in the United States welfare program. That was intended to begin to reduce the generational cycle of welfare dependency by making increasing numbers of welfare recipients enroll in education or job-training programs. Some of these programs are financed by the Job Training Partnership Act. The law's principal section gives state and local agencies $1.5 billion a year to retrain about 750,000 adults and youths.
At any one time only a small percentage of Americans on the welfare rolls have been there for a long time. But over time they consume a disproportionately high percentage of the welfare funds that American taxpayers finance, experts say.
Sometime in September the Senate is likely to vote to redirect the thrust of the job-training law, to target more money to the neediest unemployed, a heavy percentage of whom are minorities. The Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee on July 26 approved such a revamping. After approval by the full Senate, the measure would go to the House of Representatives.
Proponents of the changes say that what ultimately is at stake is America's economic place in the world, as well as dealing with street crime, drug use, and the personal happiness of the unemployed. They claim that early in the next century minorities are expected to make up almost half of America's labor force.
When the original law was passed in 1982, the US was in a recession. Defenders of the current law point out that a major intent was to help people who had lost jobs to equip themselves to find others.
But times have changed, critics of the law say. The US is in a long-running period of prosperity, but many of the poor fail to share in it. They have no jobs and little prospect of gaining any because of a lack of education and job skills.
The existing law has been roundly criticized from several sides - Congress, the General Accounting Office, and the inspector general of the Labor Department, which administers the law.
The basic thrust of the criticisms is that under the law, agencies that train the unemployed are providing too little training to those in the greatest need, and are not focusing on the long-term unemployed.
Several critics further charge that these agencies are producing impressive graduation and job-retention statistics by spending too much time and effort helping people who don't really need it - and ignoring those in great need.
Worse, say Sen. Paul Simon (D) of Illinois and others, unless there is change the problem will worsen, especially among minorities, because the complex tasks in American jobs will become even more complicated.
More education will be required for a good job in the future. After World War II, people with only a fourth-grade education could make an adequate living for themselves and their families, notes Senator Simon, a chief proponent of changing the law. Today some high school education is required. Some estimate that by the end of the century at least one year of college will be necessary.
At the same time the dropout rate is rising to above 50 percent in inner cities, especially among blacks and Hispanics. Simon notes that three-fourths of the unemployed are believed to be functionally illiterate. These are the people on whom the program should concentrate, critics believe. The program will target this sector of society if the changes pass Congress and are signed by the President.