Congress Moves Toward a Better Workforce Development System

June 23, 2014

Congress may soon do a remarkable thing — pass a significant, non-urgent bill on a bipartisan basis. We can’t be sure, of course. But advocates are justifiably hopeful.

The bill I’m referring to would reauthorize the Workforce Investment Act — the single largest source of federal funds for a broad range of programs and services that help people prepare for and find work. Or looked at another way, that provide employers with workers whose skills match their needs.

WIA hasn’t been reauthorized since it was created in 1998. Needless to say, the labor market has changed since then, as have the needs of people who want to enter it, re-enter it or move up from dead-end, low-wage jobs.

That’s not all that’s changed. State and local agencies have gained experience — not altogether happy — with the administrative complexities the current law imposes.

And experts have noted some perverse incentives, created partly — but not entirely — but funding cuts that predate the Budget Control Act caps and across-the-board cuts. Those, of course, have only made matters worse.

Most importantly perhaps, thinking about how workforce development programs should be structured has evolved. So have views on how public agencies and their contractors should be held accountable — and for what.

All of which brings us to the proposed Workforce Opportunity and Investment Act — proclaimed by key Republicans and Democrats both as a “bicameral, bipartisan … deal to improve the nation’s workforce development system.”

Getting to this point wasn’t easy. Last year, House Republicans crafted — and with scant help from Democrats, passed — a bill that would have eliminated 35 WIA programs and effectively rolled the rest into a block grant, with funds frozen for seven years at the Fiscal Year 2014 level.

The effect, as the White House said, would have been to shortchange the needs of “vulnerable populations” who face “significant barriers to employment.”

So one of the best things we can say about the new bill is that the block grant is dead. The basic WIA structure remains the same, ensuring that each top-level component — job training, employment services, adult basic education and vocational rehabilitation for people with disabilities — gets funding.

At the same time — and here’s where things get interesting — states must develop a single, comprehensive plan for all “core” programs for both eligible youth and adults, including those with disabilities and those who are “dislocated,” e.g., have been laid off or soon will be.

Local Workforce Investments Boards — also sometimes known as Workforce Investment Councils — must then develop plans that align with what their state has produced.

What we see here isn’t just administrative streamlining. The unified plan requirement will tend to break down silos, e.g., between the agency that administers the one-stop employment services centers and the agency that administers adult education.

Beyond this, the bill establishes a clear preference for a career pathway approach to workforce development.

Basically, this approach involves a continuous, interlocking series of programs and services that enable participants to move from wherever they are to successively higher levels of education and employment in a particular industry or occupation that offers significant opportunities in the area where they live.

Services here may include various “needs-related payments” that enable recipients to get — and stay — on their pathways, e.g., transportation subsidies, child care. Also included are diverse hands-on work experiences, paid as well as unpaid.

More generally, the bill eliminates the current sequence of services for adults — an approach that reserves “intensive services” like job counseling for those who haven’t gotten jobs through basic, limited services and training only for those who are still unemployed, despite the intensive services.

The bill requires not only a single, unified plan, but a single set of accountability measures for all core programs serving adults and another set for youth-specific programs.

For adults, this will mean tracking participants according to various success measures. How many secure — and retain — unsubsidized employment, for example, plus their earnings. How many gain additional credentials and/or marketable skills.

Somewhat similar measures for disadvantaged youth — a category that will be broadened to include young adults up to 25 years old.

And, very importantly, results for subpopulations must be reported separately, including each group the bill defines as having a barrier (or barriers) to employment, e.g. homeless people, recipients of major safety net benefits, ex-offenders, single parents, individuals with disabilities.

This is one, though not the only way that the bill seeks to ensure sufficient attention to people for whom a job listing and perhaps some short-shot training won’t be enough for them to gain employment — let alone prospects for advancement.

Well, there’s a lot more in the bill — all 811 pages of it. And a lot of it, including what I’ve tried to summarize is very complex. So I’ll note just one other feature.

WIA authorizes Congress to spend “such sums as are necessary” — in other words, however much (or little) it chooses in any given year. Mostly how little. Funding, in real dollars, was more than 30% lower last year than in 2002.

The Workforce Opportunity and Investment Act specifies authorized, i.e., permissible, funding levels for each major component and for each of the six years it covers. These would generally bring funding back to Fiscal Year 2010 levels by Fiscal Year 2017, according to a National Skills Coalition brief.

But, as NSC also says, it’s very unlikely that programs will be funded at the authorized levels if Congress lets the caps and related cuts continue as currently mandated.

So a bipartisan, bicameral bill that’s a whole lot better than what we’ve got now, but not enough money to appropriately serve the many millions who could benefit — unless Congress does something even more remarkable.

 


Mayor’s Budget Shortchanges Under-Educated DC Adults … and Their Kids

April 24, 2014

“We have jobs and we have people,” says DC Appleseed’s Deputy Director. “But the education people have doesn’t fit the jobs available.” The real problem, however, as she goes on to suggest, is the education that many people don’t have.

This isn’t a rerun of the oft-debunked skills gap myth — at least so far as the District of Columbia is concerned. The extraordinarily high high unemployment rates in the poorer parts of the city apparently reflect a lack of minimal education credentials — and skills they’re supposed to indicate.

About 60,000 residents 18 years and older lack a high school diploma or the equivalent. An even larger number “likely lack the basic … skills needed to succeed in training, postsecondary education and the workforce,” according to a new DC Appleseed report.

Of the deplorably few adults in programs supported by funds the Office of the State Superintendent of Education administers, more than half who weren’t learning English as a second language have consistently tested below 6th grade level.

This means they’re ineligible for any of the programs the Department of Employment Services makes available through an Individual Training Account and also for most of the programs offered by our local community college.

Even residents who test higher often fail the GED exams. Their pass rate in 2012 was 55.2% — the third lowest in the country. And the exams got tougher this year.

Yet more than three-quarters of all jobs in the District will require some postsecondary education by 2020, according to the latest projections by experts at Georgetown University.

In short, as things stand now, we’re looking at a very large number of working-age residents whose chances of full-time, living-wage jobs are dismal.

And as if that weren’t enough, we’ve research indicating links between parents’ education (or lack of same) and their children’s success in school. On the downside, children whose parents are functionally illiterate are twice as likely to be illiterate themselves.

This isn’t only because poverty rates are highest among adults without a high school diploma or GED — well over 33% in the District for those 25 and older. But all the daily impacts of poverty, e.g., hunger, homelessness, stress, obviously play a part.

Plowing more money into the rest of the education system, as the Mayor proposes, won’t deliver the hoped-for bang for the buck if the basic education needs of parents are neglected, as DC Learns warned several years ago.

DC Appleseed’s report identifies a range of problems in the District’s approach to adult education — including, but not limited to inadequate funding.

It outlines steps toward a long-range solution — essentially, an integrated system that connects basic skills development to career pathways. The DC Council could lay the groundwork with the initial $2.5 million the report recommends.

But the Council should also increase funding for the adult education programs we have now — both to serve more residents and to support better results.

I wish I could tell you what the Mayor’s budget proposes. But it’s characteristically opaque — partly, but not entirely because of the fragmentation DC Appleseed documents.

This much I’ve been able to parse.

The handful of charter schools that provide adult education would get more per pupil, as would the two regular public schools that do.

They’d still get less per pupil than what schools would get for any other type of student. And the new extra weight that’s supposed to boost funds for schools with students who’ve been designated “at risk” won’t apply, though some of the adults surely meet the same criteria, e.g., eligibility for SNAP (food stamp) benefits.

OSSE would get less for the adult education grants it provides. The proposed budget indicates a cut of about $3.8 million. This apparently reflects the fact that the Department of Employment Services won’t be transferring funds, as it did this fiscal year.

The Fair Budget Coalition had recommended that the baseline budget for adult education, i.e., the estimated costs of preserving current services, include these funds — a $5.5 million addition, according to FBC.

Hard to believe that the Mayor and his people couldn’t have found the money. They’ve instead put $3 million for adult literacy on the list of items to be funded if revenues prove higher than projected.

Let’s just say this is a mere gesture, since it would take $59.8 million to fund the priorities ranked higher. Setting this pie-in-the-sky aside, the total requested for all the programs that, in one way or the other, address the adult basic skills deficit might serve more residents than in Fiscal 2013.

But they then served at most about 8,000, according to DC Appleseed. That’s a far cry from meeting the need.

 


What Could Cut the Poverty Rate Right Now

February 20, 2014

A nice, short video from the Half in Ten campaign tells us five things we can do to cut poverty today. They’re actually four things Congress can do — and one that it shouldn’t.

They’re all modest, middle-of-the-road proposals, reflecting both pending legislation and priorities identified in the President’s latest State of the Union address. That alone should tell you that they won’t have an easy time getting through Congress, though polls indicate bipartisan support from voters.

Here they are, with supporting details from the video and others I’ve added.

Create Jobs. What Half in Ten has in mind here are investments in renewable energy, other “growth sectors” and infrastructure projects, e.g., repairing our pot-holed roads and crumbling bridges, improving public transport.

We’re still 7.7 million jobs shy of the number needed to bring the unemployment rate down to its pre-recession level — 600,000 fewer than when the video was created, but still a daunting number. The recommended investments would help close the gap — as might the next thing, according to many economists.

Raise the Minimum Wage. In other words, Congress should pass the Fair Minimum Wage Act, which has been awaiting a vote for about a year and a half now.

As I’ve written before, the bill would raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour by 2016 and then link it to a commonly-used consumer price index so that it wouldn’t again lose purchasing power due to inflation.

The bill would also, over a longer period of time, raise the federal tip credit wage — now and since 1991 stuck at $2.13 an hour — to 70% of the regular minimum wage and then link it to preserve this ratio.

In the late 1960s, Half in Ten says, the minimum wage was enough to lift a family of three out of poverty. A full-time, year round job at the federal minimum wage now pays less than the federal poverty line for a two-person family.

Expand Access to High-Quality Pre-K and Childcare. This, as you probably know, is a high priority for the President and a broad spectrum of advocacy organizations. They’re focused especially on children in low-income families, more than half of whom start school at a disadvantage — and never catch up.

A bill reflecting the Obama administration’s proposal — the Strong Start for America’s Children Act — would make pre-K available for more low-income four-year-olds and, at the same time, establish quality standards. It also seeks to raise quality in programs for younger kids.

The Half in Ten video, however, focuses on the immediate pocketbook issue. Low-income families, it says, spend, on average, 40% of their income on childcare. More money for publicly-funded programs and/or subsidies to help pay the rates other programs charge would obviously leave more leftover for other needs.

Make the Workplace Family Friendly. Three priorities here. One is mandatory paid sick leave for the more than 40% of private-sector workers whose employers don’t see fit to grant it voluntarily. The percent in roughly double for low-wage workers, who can least afford to take unpaid leave.

A second priority is paid family leave so that workers can take time off for a broader range of compelling reasons, e.g., childbirth, a sick family member in need of care. Only 212% of workers have this benefit now.

And of the 59% who have an unpaid family leave guarantee under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, about two million need, but can’t afford to take it, according to a recent survey.

A bill now pending in Congress would take care of both these issues — and without adding a penny to the federal debt, says one of the cosponsors.

The third priority is legislation to further strengthen the Equal Pay Act. Women still earn only 77 cents for every dollar men earn. Various reasons for this, but an estimated quarter to a third of the gap may reflect discrimination.

Don’t Make Poverty Worse. In other words, Congress is to refrain from further cuts to programs that provide cash or near-cash benefits to people in need.

Half in Ten flags SNAP (the food stamp program), which, as you know, was recently cut. It lifted nearly five million people above the poverty threshold in 2012, according to the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure.

Also flagged are unemployment insurance benefits, which lifted more than 2.4 million above the poverty threshold.

So Congress will surely make poverty worse if it doesn’t renew the recently-expired Emergency Unemployment Compensation program — or does, but trims it back again. The former seems more likely than the latter, unless Republicans rethink their position.

This is, in a way, a sad agenda because it’s largely based on pending legislation, which is largely based on what stands at least a remove chance of passing in this highly-divided, deficit-obsessed Congress. Sad also because chances seem pretty remote for much of it.

But one never can tell. So the thing we can do right now is to weigh in with our elected representatives on these five things — unless, of course, we’re disenfranchised District of Columbia residents. Sigh.


Low-Income Men in Prime Years Face Multiple Barriers

January 23, 2014

“Over 15 million men between the ages of 18 and 44 cannot afford to support a family,” writes Margaret Simms, one of the coauthors of a series of studies the Urban Institute has conducted for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

These are men who had no college degree and lived in families with incomes below 200% of the federal poverty line during 2008-10. The total number of low-income men “in their prime years,” so defined, was 16.5 million.

This is about 3 million more than in 2000. And it represents a somewhat larger share of men in the age group. They are, as one of the Institute’s studies says, “disconnected” or at risk of becoming so.

Figures in another of the studies bear this out. For example:

  • Only 61% of the men were employed during the three-year period and only 45% full-time, year round.
  • Of those who worked, 37% made less than $10,000 a year — below the poverty line for a single person.
  • A mind-boggling 85% made less than $25,000.

Yet 77% of the men were counted as part of the labor force, meaning they were either working or looking for work at the time the Census Bureau conducted the surveys the Institute used.

So there seem to have been far more at risk of disconnection than actually disconnected — at least, so far as work is concerned. Disconnection from family is another matter.

Fewer than half had ever been married. And only 32% were during the 2008-10 period. But one gathers from what Simms says and from discussion at a symposium the Institute conducted that a far larger portion are fathers.

Most would like to be breadwinners and involved in their children’s lives, according to the experts who participated. But, as we know from other research, they’re hindered by low earnings and poor prospects.

Belonging to this disadvantaged group is not an equal opportunity. The men are disproportionately black and Hispanic — 48% of the Institute’s target group when counted together.

Simms cites two critical factors that help explain this — though we shouldn’t altogether discount plain old race discrimination in the labor market.

For the group as a whole, one reason for the dismal employment and earnings figures is insufficient education. Nearly a third had no more than a high school diploma or the equivalent. And 29% didn’t even have that. But the latter was true for half the Hispanics.

With or without the formal education credentials that could qualify them for ongoing, decent-paying jobs, many can’t get a foot in the door because they’ve spent time in prison.

Though the incarceration rate for young non-Hispanic white men has risen somewhat since 1980, it’s risen more for Hispanic young men — and soared for those who are black.

In 2008, 11.4% of all black men between the ages of 20 and 34 were behind bars. This is well over six times the rate for non-Hispanic white men in the same age range and about three times the rate for their Hispanic counterparts.

Simms concludes that “another door must open.” Both public and private-sector policies must change to lower the employment barriers for ex-offenders.

As important as this is, I think, as do many others, that we also need to change our incarceration policies — and to eliminate what looks for all the world like race discrimination in both sentencing and the way some local law enforcement authorities go about their business.

The Institute’s findings also cry out for reforms in our education system — from pre-K through college. These obviously must include opportunities for adults to make up for what they didn’t learn, whether because they dropped out, were pushed out or graduated with only minimal basic skills.

Even this agenda is, I think, too narrow. Perhaps the Institute’s studies will culminate in something more satisfactory.


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