With the new jobless numbers offering that "glimmer of hope" he has been pitching, President Obama today to offered more help to the unemployed.
The lower figures, he said, are no "solace" to the laid-off who can't find jobs and struggle to support their families. And to emerge stronger from the recession, the nation's workforce must come out stronger out of the downturn.
So he laid out proposals to allow people without work to enroll in community college and other education and training programs without sacrificing their unemployment checks. He also wants to make it easier for the jobless to qualify for financial aid for colleges by not basing their eligibility on their prior year's income when they had a job.
The current rules are "senseless" when workers need to prepare themselves for jobs that often require more training. He cited the case of a Maine woman who did get help because the state already has such regulations.
"That's what our unemployment system should be, not just a safety net, but a stepping stone to a new future," Obama said.
Obama also announced a new website (click here) where laid-off workers can find out more about educational opportunities. He also announced that Jill Biden, the vice president's wife who has taught at community colleges, will lead an effort to raise awareness of what they offer.
Obama spoke hours after the Labor Department reported that the pace of layoffs slowed in April, when employers slashed 539,000 jobs, the fewest in six months. But after revised, higher numbers of layoffs in February and March, the unemployment rate rose to 8.9 percent, the highest in more than a quarter century. And since the recession began in December 2007, the economy has lost 5.7 million jobs
The layoffs are "still a sobering toll" and it could take years to recover from the recession, the president said. (His full remarks are below.)
The National Employment Law Project praised Obama's initiatives, saying in a report that despite federal law barring states from denying unemployment benefits to workers in “state-approved training,” many states only allow limited access to benefits.
“In a time when unemployment is at near-unprecedented levels, with long durations of joblessness and substantial job loss -- and with the federal government picking up the tab for 20 to 53 weeks of extended jobless benefits for the long-term unemployed, it is critical that states adopt this change to give workers the chance to develop skills that will help them find sustained work and stay afloat while they do so," the group's policy co-director, Maurice Emsellem, said in a statement.
Representative John Boehner, the House Republican leader, also jumped on the numbers, using them to criticize Obama's game plan. "About two and a half million jobs have been lost since the beginning of the year, yet some here in Washington continue to believe that we can borrow and spend our way back to prosperity," Boehner said in a statement. "Rather than working across the aisle on plans to create more jobs, rebuild Americans' savings, and reinvigorate the housing market, the spending, taxing, and borrowing binge that the Administration and Congress have set out on in the first four months of this year isn't helping our economy."
THE PRESIDENT: Good morning, everybody. This morning we learned that our economy lost another 539,000 jobs in the month of April. And while it's somewhat encouraging that this number is lower than it's been in each of the past six months, it's still a sobering toll. The unemployment rate is at its highest point in 25 years. It underscores the point that we're still in the midst of a recession that was years in the making and will be months or even years in the unmaking; and we should expect further job losses in the months to come.
Although we have a long way to go before we can put this recession behind us, the gears of our economic engine do appear to slowly -- to be slowly turning once again. Consumer spending and home sales are stabilizing; construction spending is up for the first time in six months. So step by step, we're beginning to make progress.
Of course, that's no solace to those who've lost their jobs, or to the small business owners whose hearts break at letting long-time employees go. It's no relief for those who continue to send out resume after resume, and then wait for a call. And it's of little comfort to the families who wake up wondering how they're going to pay their bills, stay in their homes, or put food on the table -- the Americans I've met in towns across this country, or whose letters I read every night.
They're letters of struggle but they're also of service to others. They're stories of heartbreak, but they're also stories of hope. It's the story of the small business owner in California who wrote that as long as her employees depend on her, "I will not give up." That's what she said. The veteran in Oklahoma, who wrote, "We've all got a long way to go. But we'll stick together and get through this." Or the mother in Michigan who wrote that she and her husband can't make ends meet, but as long as they have their jobs, they'll work 24 hours a day to send their children to college. This woman ended her letter by saying, "I'm not writing to tell you about my troubles -- I'm writing to please ask you to act quickly to help all the people like me."
Such hard-working Americans are why I ran for President. They're the reason we've been working swiftly and aggressively across all fronts to turn this economy around; to jumpstart spending and hiring and create jobs where we can with steps like the Recovery Act. Because of this plan, cops are still on the beat and teachers are still in the classroom; shovels are breaking ground and cranes dot the sky; and new life has been breathed into private companies like Sharon Arnold's. And already, 95 percent of working Americans are seeing a tax cut that we promised would show up in their paychecks.
We're moving forward because now is not the time for small plans. It's not a time to pause or to be passive or to wait around for our problems to somehow fix themselves. Now is the time to put a new foundation for growth in place -- to rebuild our economy, to retrain our workforce, and re-equip the American people. And now is the time to change unemployment from a period of "wait and see" to a chance for our workers to train and seek the next opportunity -- so when that new and better day does come around, our people, our industry, and our entire country are ready to make the most of it.
Now, if we want to come out of this recession stronger than before, we need to make sure that our workforce is better prepared than ever before. Right now, someone who doesn't have a college degree is more than twice as likely to be unemployed as someone who does. And so many of the Americans who have lost their jobs can't find new ones because they simply don't have the skills and the training they need for the jobs they want.
In a 21st century economy where the most valuable skill you can sell is your knowledge, education is the single best bet we can make -- not just for our individual success, but for the success of the nation as a whole. The average college graduate earns 80 percent more than those who stopped after high school. So if we want to help people not only get back on their feet today but prosper tomorrow, we need to take a rigorous new approach to higher education and technical training. And that starts by changing senseless rules that discourage displaced workers from getting the education and training they need to find and fill the jobs of the future.
So today I'm announcing new steps we are taking to do exactly that -- to give people across America who have lost their jobs the chance to go back to school today to get retrained for the jobs and industries of tomorrow.
The idea here is to fundamentally change our approach to unemployment in this country, so that it's no longer just a time to look for a new job, but is also a time to prepare yourself for a better job. That's what our unemployment system should be -- not just a safety net, but a stepping stone to a new future. It should offer folks educational opportunities they wouldn't otherwise have, giving them the measurable and differentiated skills they need just -- not just to get through hard times, but to get ahead when the economy comes back.
And that's what Maureen Pike did. Maureen lost her job as a physician's receptionist, but she didn't lose hope. She took it as an opportunity to upgrade her skills and earned an associate's degree in nursing from a community college. As a consequence, today she works as a registered nurse.
The only reason she could afford to do that while supporting her twins was because the state of Maine allowed her to keep her unemployment benefits and study with the help from a Pell Grant. Pell Grants cover tuition at almost every community college in the country, and unemployment benefits can help those studying to gain new skills to support their families at the same time.
But today, far too many Americans are denied that opportunity. Let me just give you an example. Say an unemployed factory worker wants to upgrade his skills to become a mechanic or a technician. In many states, that worker might lose temporary financial support if he enrolls in a training program. And to make matters worse, unemployment might mean he can't afford higher education, and he likely won't qualify for federal help simply because he may have made a decent salary a year ago, before he was laid off.
Well, that doesn't make much sense for our economy or our country. So we're going to change it. First, we'll open new doors to higher education and job training programs to recently laid-off workers who are receiving unemployment benefits. And if those displaced workers need help paying for their education, they should get it -- and that's why the next step is to make it easier for them to receive Pell Grants of the sort that Maureen used.
I've asked my Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, and my Secretary of Labor, Hilda Solis, to work closely with states and our institutions of higher learning and encourage them not only to allow these changes, but to inform all workers receiving unemployment benefits of the training programs and financial support open to them. And together, the Department of Education and the Department of Labor have created a new website called opportunity.gov -- I'll repeat that, opportunity.gov -- to help workers discover and take advantage of these opportunities.
And together, these changes will increase access to education and opportunity for hundreds of thousands of workers who've been stung by this recession -- people just like Maureen. And like her, many may take advantage of one of America's underappreciated assets -- and that's our community colleges. These schools offer practical education and technical training, and they're increasingly important centers of learning where Americans can prepare for the jobs of the future.
And that's also why I'm asking Dr. Jill Biden, a community college professor who's devoted her entire life to education -- and who happens to be married to the Vice President -- to lead a national effort to raise awareness about what we're doing to open the doors to our community colleges.
So I think this is one more piece of the puzzle. It's a good start. It is only a start, though. These steps are just a short-term down payment on our larger goal of ensuring that all Americans get the skills and education they need to succeed in today's economy. And to that end, I have asked once again every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training. It can be community college or a four-year school; vocational training or an apprenticeship; but whatever the training may be, every American will need to get more than a high school diploma. And we will be backing up that effort with the support necessary. And we will ensure that by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.
In the weeks to come, I will also lay out a fundamental rethinking of our job training, vocational education, and community college programs. It's time to move beyond the idea that we need several different programs to address several different problems -- we need one comprehensive policy that addresses our comprehensive challenges.
That's how we'll open the doors of opportunity and lay a new foundation for our economic growth -- by investing in our citizens. That's how we've always emerged from tough times stronger than before -- because of the hard work and determination and ingenuity of the American people. And I am confident that if we summon that spirit once again, we will get through this; we will see our nation recover; and together, along with folks like Maureen and Sharon, we're going to put America on the path to shared and lasting prosperity once again.
Thank you very much everybody. Have a great weekend.
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.