The White House has circulated materials asserting that the President’s proposed American Jobs Act (AJA) would “support” nearly 400,000 education jobs. Similar claims were made earlier in the Administration with respect to jobs “created or saved” by the 2009 stimulus package. The terminology of “supporting” nearly 400,000 jobs, as it turns out, is even more problematic. It, too, reflects an assumption rather than a metric that can be objectively tested and verified. But the “support” metric contains a more glaring problem: it has nearly nothing to do with the policy that it advertises. It does not illuminate the policy’s efficacy, barely reflecting even on its content.
To start the process of estimating educator jobs at risk, the Administration refers to a June, 2011 paper quantifying recent and projected shortfalls in state budgets. The Administration then assumes that shortfalls would be filled by a combination of tax increases and spending reductions, with spending cuts applied proportionally across all categories including education. As the Administration materials state, “These spending reduction numbers were then converted into estimates of educator jobs at risk. . ." The Administration then points to $30 billion in spending in the proposed AJA, and asserts that this is “enough for states to avoid harmful layoffs” and to “rehire tens of thousands of teachers who lost their jobs over the past three years.” Putting these and other informational items together, the Administration concludes that the AJA would “support” nearly 400,000 jobs.
What is the problem with this chain of reasoning? There are several. First, the initial assumption made is that in the absence of these federal appropriations, states would make no effort to prioritize education spending relative to across-the-board budget cuts. But the biggest problem is that even if numbers of “jobs at risk” were correct, this would tell us nothing about the desirability of the Administration’s proposed policy response. The figures presented effectively describe a set of assumptions about state budgets; they carry no hard information about the efficacy of the AJA. And so we are left with a number that draws no clear connection between the policy advocated and the results claimed. For evaluating the relative merit of policy alternatives, this is not illuminating.
The previous effort to rationalize and quantify “jobs created or saved” caused enormous public confusion and created unnecessary controversy. Let’s hope that the even more nebulous concept of “supporting” jobs doesn’t create still more.