“I never, ever, ever thought I’d end up in an art gallery,” said Tremaine Edwards, 35, a former computer technician who had been unemployed for two years before he was hired in May by Gallery Guichard, a private gallery in Chicago. Mr. Edwards now earns $10 an hour, financed by the government, through the Put Illinois to Work program, to maintain the company’s Web site, curate exhibits and run gallery events.
He has also become the gallery’s star salesman, selling five paintings during the most recent gallery opening despite no background in fine arts or sales.
“I feel like if I knew I could have done this 15 years ago, I would have,” he said, grateful for the opportunity to escape cubicle life. “As long as I keep selling like this, I think I’ll be fine, no matter what happens with Put Illinois to Work.”
Proponents of these national job subsidies, initially financed with $5 billion of stimulus money, say it is better to pay people for working in real jobs than to pay them jobless benefits for staying idle.
Placing workers in the private sector is also more promising than giving them make-work government jobs, they say, because market forces can be harnessed to figure out where people like Mr. Edwards should invest their skills for the long run.
Others contend that training and financing will accomplish little if businesses are unwilling to hire on their own. They argue that government policies should instead be encouraging business growth robust enough to create jobs independently.
The effectiveness of these programs will not be clear for many months, if ever. As the stimulus money dries up, employers will decide whether to keep the workers at their own cost or cast them back into the unemployment pool.
Moreover, some economists fear that people hired with government subsidies may simply be displacing other workers, rather than adding to total employment, no matter how earnestly the programs are policed.
“There’s always a concern that the employer or somebody else who hires them would have simply hired someone else,” says David Card, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley.
About 247,000 workers will have been placed in these subsidized jobs by the end of September, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a research organization. The jobs cover everything from assembly-line work to white-collar positions like business development, and typically pay $8 to $15 an hour, according to LaDonna Pavetti, a director at the center. There are exceptions: San Francisco, for example, pays up to $74,000 in annual salary, which employers can also supplement with additional pay.
So far just over a billion dollars has been approved to create subsidized employment programs in 36 states and the District of Columbia, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. The biggest year-round program is run by Illinois, which has put 22,000 workers in subsidized jobs (and 5,000 in subsidized summer youth jobs) and has 30,000 people on its waiting list.
Most states pay 100 percent of workers’ wages up to a certain point. To qualify for the subsidy, workers must have a low household income. They must also have minor children, or be under age 21 themselves. Employers seem to hear about the programs largely through word of mouth, and some states actively help match eligible workers with companies.
These eligibility restrictions are part of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Familiesprogram, created in the welfare reform legislation of 1996, which is now being used to channel the job subsidy money to states.