Budget Cap Will Cap Dad’s and Daughter’s Futures

October 19, 2015

I first met Peter* on a street corner, where he was selling Street Sense, the newspaper for homeless people in the District of Columbia. He now does work for me that I don’t have the strength for.

Peter has in-demand skills, but won’t seek a regular, full-time job because he has to drop whatever he’s doing to pick up his daughter Joanne — and sometimes rush her to a hospital.

She’s prone to seizures due to a severe case of epilepsy. She also has some developmental disabilities. Peter has sole responsibility for her, as well as an older daughter.

Though he must patch together short-term, flexible jobs, the family has a home and basic needs met. For this, we can partly credit the Supplemental Security Income benefits he receives on Joanne’s behalf.

The benefits are far from generous — $733 a month. This is far less than the estimated costs of raising a child with an intellectual disability, including the earnings a parent must forfeit.

Bills introduced in the last Congress would, among other things, have restored the value SSI benefits have lost. But they’d stand even less of a chance now than then.

Meanwhile, the caps on spending for non-defense programs that depend on annual appropriations threaten the special education Joanne is receiving.

She’s entitled to a free and appropriate education under federal law, but the amount states and the District receive to help pay for it comes from one of those programs — the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Peter recently enrolled Joanne in a program that focuses on independent living skills, both work-related and basic everyday. He’s thrilled by the progress he sees and his opportunities for “hands-on” involvement.

He can perhaps look forward to steadier, more gainful employment as Joanne becomes able to manage more on her own — to count cash, for example, wash clothes and prepare meals for herself and her family.

But she’ll gain such skills only if the program continues to receive enough money to provide the high-quality, individualized education that she and her fellow students need. The federal government surely hasn’t been doing its share.

The law that created IDEA commits the federal government to providing states with 40% of the average they spend per student, multiplied by the number of special education students they have.

Funds actually appropriated for the 2013-14 school year fell short by more than $20 billion, the Education Commission for the States reports, saying this is the most recent year it has figures for.

The under-funding didn’t begin with the Budget Control Act that’s responsible for the caps. But both the cut it initially made and the caps have caused IDEA grants for programs like Joanne’s a real-dollar loss of  9.6%, First Focus reports.

Now we’re less than two months away from the end of the short-term bill that’s keeping federal funds flowing to all the programs that depend on annual appropriations. It takes an across-the-board nick from the non-defense programs to keep spending on them below this year’s cap.

Both the House and Senate bills to fund Department of Education programs would provide very small increases for IDEA — nowhere near enough to make up for the shortfall. They may, in fact, not even support the same level and quality of services for the same number of children.

Whether the House and Senate will come together to pass an actual budget for education is an open question. What the squeeze on funding due to the budget cap isn’t.

The caps, recall, were never supposed to go into effect. They were intended as an incentive, if you will, for the bipartisan “super committee” to agree on a sensible plan for reducing the deficit.

A “sizable contingent” of Congressional Republicans still seem bound and determined to preserve the cap for non-defense programs. Defense, as I’ve previously noted, would get an increase through a backdoor.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is reportedly mulling over a “major” budget deal that would require cuts to Social Security and Medicare benefits, which don’t depend on annual appropriations. That’s almost surely going to mean no deal at all.

Everybody who lives in this country will suffer harms from the further ratcheting down of federal funding — some more directly than others. Peter and Joanne are mere drops in the ocean. But there are millions like them, doing their best in difficult situations — and vulnerable.

Large coalitions of advocacy organizations are campaigning to get Congress to #StoptheCuts — the hashtag they’ve been using on Twitter and will use for a Twitterstorm, i.e., massive blast of tweets, on Wednesday. This is an opportunity for all of you with Twitter accounts to ramp up the pressure.

You’ll see tweets to many blog posts invited and pulled together by Moms Rising. A shorter version of this post will probably be part of the “carnival.”

*  This isn’t his real name. I’ve changed both his and his daughter’s to preserve their privacy.


Much to Like (Though Not Everything) in Draft TANF Bill

August 27, 2015

The House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Resources styles its bill to revamp Temporary Assistance for Needy Families a discussion draft, indicating that it’s still a work in progress. A good thing that, since as I’ve already said, it’s far from problem-free.

The biggest problem, to my mind — and the one that may prove the biggest sticking point — is its failure to increase the block grant, which gets divvied up among states to help cover program costs.

The draft nevertheless has enough promising features for us to hope that it addresses this and other problems progressive experts have flagged.

Here’s a summary of features that particularly struck me, with apologies to you policy wonks and service providers who understandably would like more details. The law and the rules that govern what states must, may and can’t do are dauntingly complex.

A New TANF Purpose. Surprising as it may seem, the general purposes Congress has defined for TANF don’t include poverty reduction. The discussion draft would.

What it wouldn’t do, however, is hold states accountable for reducing poverty among families that participated in their TANF programs. Nor for those their programs currently serve — let alone all they should.

A dismal record on several counts. The new purpose wouldn’t improve it. But at least one other feature could. (Read on.)

Expanded Work Activity Options. Few features of the current TANF law are as problematic as the limits on activities states can count toward their required work participation rates, i.e., the targets they supposedly have to hit to avert penalties. (Again, read on and you’ll understand why “supposedly.”)

On the one hand, we’ve got core activities, which states can count for all the hours they’re supposed to have parents engaged, and non-core activities, which states can count only for parents who engage in core activities for a specified minimum number of hours per week.

On the other hand, we’ve got limits on countable core activity time for participation in vocational education programs, other education programs directly related to employment and high school attendance. The first counts only for a year — and for no more than 30% of parents. The latter two only for parents still in their teens.

Together, these tend to deny TANF parents opportunities to gain the formal education credentials and marketable skills, including basic literacy, that will enable them to get jobs that pay enough to support themselves as their children — or indeed, any jobs at all.

One need only look at the unemployment rate for all but the youngest working-age adults who don’t have a high school diploma or the equivalent for evidence of one of the defects in the current scheme.

The draft would extend the vocational education limit to two years and the high school age limit to twenty-five. It leaves open the question of whether to adjust the voc. ed. cap.

It also loosens up countable time restrictions that could benefit TANF parents ready to enter the workforce — or far from ready. For example, states could count toward their work participation rates more job search time and more time in so-called job readiness activities like mental health counseling.

Simplified Work Participation Rate. What states can count toward their required work participation rates depends not only on how the rules classify activities, but on whether participants are in one-parent or two-parent families. More core activity hours required for the latter.

The end result of these various distinctions is a large administrative burden, as you can imagine. The director of a nonprofit partnership that provides TANF services recently testified that their career counselors spend more than half their time on documentation.

The draft would do away with both the core/non-core distinction and the so-called marriage penalty, i.e., the higher work participation rate for parents who are living together. It would also allow states to get partial credit toward their rate for certain parents who participate for fewer hours than the standard minimum.

Steps Toward Accountability for Results. Though the draft doesn’t hold states accountable for poverty reduction, it does require them to measure two related outcomes — employment and median wages for parents who recently left the program.

States would have to measure these outcomes for all parents who no longer receive cash assistance, whether because they’ve moved from welfare to work or for some less hopeful reason, e.g., because they’d reached the end of their state’s time limit.

CLASP, among others, has alerted the subcommittee to problems with the outcome measures. But making states responsible for what their work-related services achieve, rather than merely parents’ participation in them is another smart, overdue move.

No More Caseload Reduction Credit. Many states have had a deuce of a time meeting the work participation rates. They face a penalty — loss of some of their block grant funds — if they don’t.

But they can avert the penalty by reducing the number of families they serve. They’ve thus got an incentive to keep eligible families out of their programs and to get those who’ve surmounted the barriers out — work-ready or otherwise.

As I’ve written before, states — and the District of Columbia — impose sanctions, up to and including full benefits cut-offs when parents don’t do what they’ve been told to. Or rather, when some authority decides they haven’t.

A family that’s lost its benefits altogether doesn’t count as part of the caseload. So it’s not surprising to learn that some agencies have seized on every occasion to impose so-called full family sanctions — or in some cases, reportedly trumped one up.

The discussion draft would eliminate the caseload reduction credit — and thus, one hopes, overuse of sanctions, which inevitably punish children.

These aren’t the only features that make the draft a surprisingly strong step toward improving the altogether worst part of our safety net. (Ruthless cutting here to control post length.)

What will come of the draft remains to be seen. But we can at least hope for a bill with all the draft’s good features, plus good revisions, good answers to the open questions and a substantial block grant increase.

Better that than to focus on the hurdles such a bill would have to clear to get to the President’s desk.

Note: Those of you who wish I’d left the other features in may find them in two of the publicly accessible sources I used — comments by CLASP’s chief TANF expert and testimony by her counterpart at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.


Looking Back, Around and Forward As Head Start Turns 50

June 8, 2015

Head Start’s recent 50th anniversary inspired diverse celebrations. Rather wish a post from me had been one of them. But late is better than never. And in this case, late is better than a timelier post would have been because I’ve got the benefits of a thoughtful, thought-provoking post by Olivia Golden, the Executive Director at CLASP.

She singles out some of the lessons Head Start can teach us, including some it wouldn’t have if federal policymakers had pulled the plug on the program, as some earlier research suggested they should — or at least, was used to that end.

Among the lessons is one I’ve been reading about in various contexts — the effectiveness of two-generation strategies, i.e., policies and programs that focus on the needs of both children and their parents. These needs, though seemingly distinct, converge in the goal of enabling parents to raise healthy, well-balanced, successful children.

In the case of Head Start, local programs have included caseworkers to help parents work through issues common to low-income families. Some offer adult education and/or job training and placement services.

At the same time, programs have offered parents opportunities to participate in decision-making — a version of the community-based model found also in other programs launched as the War on Poverty. This is not only empowering, but skill-building, as anyone who’s tried to influence a group (or merely get it to closure) knows.

Parents could also participate in the child education components of their Head Start programs. The results, Golden says, disproved myths about poor parents, e.g., that they don’t care about their children’s education.

Other programs now reflect the two-generation approach. The home visiting programs I’ve occasionally mentioned are a good example. “Preschool in its earliest form,” the Washington Post called them.

But they’re more than that, as the article shows. The visitors help parents — mostly moms — learn how to care for their babies and toddlers. They screen both them and the children for potential health and developmental problems and for abuse in the home. They refer them to healthcare and other services, including education and job training.

So we’ve got multi-faceted, two-generation programs feeding into Head Start, either directly or through the Early Start offshoot for three-year-olds. Overly narrow feeding chain, however. (See below.)

Some programs combine early education for children with basic adult education for their parents. In D.C., for example, The Family Place offers concurrent age-based classes for young children and English as a Second Language for their parents.

We find other family, i.e., two-generation, literacy programs here, including one at Mary’s Center, which offers parents not only ESL and a parenting component, but computer skills training.

In both cases, the organizations also provide other services for both children and their parents. So we again see two sorts of integration and capacities to tailor services to individual needs.

Both organizations serve principally, though not exclusively Hispanic immigrant families. I mention this because Golden flags the link between Head Start and the civil rights movement, which birthed one of our broadest federal civil rights laws only a year before Congress approved the first War on Poverty programs.

“For 50 years,” she says, “Head Start has stood for a vision of the United States that sees promise in all young children, including those in the poorest families, and that reaches out across barriers of race, ethnicity and income to make that promise real.”

That’s the vision, but we’re clearly not living up to it. Nearly 20% of U.S. children lived in poverty in 2013, according to the Census Bureau’s official measure. Bad enough. But the poverty rates for black and Hispanic children were much worse — 38.3% and 30.4%.*

Golden concludes by asking, “What can we do from here?” She refers to “a different future,” based on what we’ve learned over the last 50 years. But she focuses mainly on what we must do now — protect Head Start and other programs that give low-income children a better start in life.

The budget plans the House and Senate have passed set the stage for further cuts in non-defense discretionary programs like Head Start. Total cuts would average about $50 billion a year, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports. These, recall, would come on top of cuts the 2011 Budget Control Act as already required.

Though Congress ultimately restored what Head Start lost, the current budget plans would translate into an estimated 35,000 fewer children in the program next fiscal year — this as compared to what the President has proposed. An additional 122,000 would lose the opportunity by Fiscal Year 2018.

Only 45% of eligible four-year-olds are in Head Start now, Golden says — and a mere 4% in Early Start. Last year, federally-funded home visiting programs served only 115,545 parents and children.

Yet the recently-renewed Maternal, Infant and Early Childhood Visiting program will get, at most, a measly $400 million a year — not a penny more than it’s got now. That, of course, means less in real dollars.

What lessons we should draw from all this I’ll leave to you.

* These are figures CLASP reported. They presumably reflect analyses of data the Census Bureau puts online.

Public Higher Education Once Affordable for All, Should Be Again

June 1, 2015

Just settled back in after a visit to Iowa. No, I’m not running for President. I mention the trip because it’s a springboard into an issue I’ve wanted to blog on for some time — higher education costs.

I joined my extended family in Iowa City to celebrate the graduations of my nieces — Cecilia (Ceci) from high school and Lola from college. They’ll both be attending their first-choice schools — Georgetown University for Ceci and University of Iowa for Lola, where she’ll begin a doctoral program in physical therapy.

They’ve earned these opportunities. And, of course, we’re all delighted that they’ll move forward on the paths they’ve chosen. Hard to see how they could if their parents hadn’t prudently set money aside — or hadn’t had the extra to save.

The sticker price for Ceci’s freshman year — tuition, room and board only — will exceed the costs of my four years at a high-ranked private college. No way she could could earn more than a fraction while also attending her classes, keeping up with assigned readings, researching and writing the required papers, etc.

I’m not sure she could borrow enough to cover her college costs. If she could, the debt burden she’d graduate with would severely limit her career choices — especially, though not only those that require advanced degrees.

What got my going on this topic, however, is that Ceci’s college education would have cost more than mine if she’d enrolled in one of her home state universities.

That’s what Lola will do. And even if she were as poor as the proverbial church mouse, there’d be no federal grant to defray some portion of her tuition and other costs.

Back in the day, as my late husband Jesse used to say, education at a public university was virtually free for in-state students. I paid $75 a semester in fees for my graduate education at the University of California. Jesse also.

We finished up just in time. Then-Governor Ronald Reagan decided to hike the fees, instituting what was, for all intents and purposes, tuition.

Cal now officially charges tuition, as well as fees. These costs of attendance have grown over time. They’re now about $12,800 a year for in-state students. We can’t blame all this on Reagan, much as some of us would like to — and as some have.

All but three states are spending less, per student, than they were before the recession set in — thus passing on their budget crunches to their public colleges and universities. The institutions have responded by hiking tuition, as well as by cutting faculty positions, course offerings and other resources that help ensure both quality and breadth.

Tuition at four-year public colleges has risen, on average, by 29% just since the 2007-8 school year. In six states, including California, increases top 60%.

These are only recent increases. States and their public higher education institutions began shifting costs to students well before the recession. Real dollar increases were, in fact, bigger three decades ago. But each before and since builds on all that came before.

As you may have read, Senator and Presidential-candidate Bernie Sanders has proposed a pair of bills that would, among other things, provide states with a large financial incentive to eliminate undergraduate tuition and fees at their public colleges and universities.

The Washington Post‘s Wonkblog wasted on time in telling us that the “free college” plan wouldn’t work. Others, including several Post columnists, argued against it for other reasons, e.g., diminished quality, unwarranted entitlement for high-income families.

Still others have argued — and for some time now — that the cost crunches universities face are of their own making. Administrative bloat, inordinate spending on athletics, reluctance to embrace technological substitutes for the traditional classroom model, etc.

I don’t want to wade into that thicket here. My point is simply that something should be done to again make higher education affordable for lower-income students and their families.

It wouldn’t reduce income inequality because that’s a function of how our system distributes the income our economy generates. It surely could increase economic mobility, however, especially for people born at the bottom of the income scale.

There’s “stickiness” at both ends, the research shows. But college graduates were more than five times as likely to move up from the bottom fifth than those without the degree.

We’d still need to invest more — and smartly — in lower-level education and other programs that help level the playing field for children who don’t have the advantages that partly account for my nieces’ academic successes, e.g., ample, healthful food, decent, stable housing, safe neighborhoods, parents with the time, interest and education to read to them, help with homework, take them to interesting places, etc.

But children without these advantages have long graduated from high school with a sound foundation for further education. And they’ve gone on to graduate from public colleges and universities — some with flying colors and without the career-limiting debt burdens too many now face.

We’ve never had genuine equal educational opportunity in this country. We know a good bit about how to expand it. And in some ways, we are. But we need, among other things, to reverse the regression by restoring free — or near-free — public higher education.

This would not only comport with our widely-shared vision of the American dream. It would produce a high return on our tax dollar investment. We’d have a larger, more diverse bank of human capital. We need that, we’re told, to drive economic growth.

But we also need well-educated people free to follow their passion for social justice by providing services and advocacy for poor and near-poor people who, for various reasons, won’t have a college degree — and for their children, who might if we care to make that possible.



Where Will Funds That Now Support Better Education for Poor Children Go?

May 4, 2015

As I said in my last post, the bipartisan Senate bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act seeks to ease the test score pressures created by No Child Left Behind, the latest version of the ESEA. It also tells the U.S. Department of Education, in no uncertain terms, to stop exerting pressures of its own.

But the bill leaves intact core requirements intended to ensure that schools no longer causally and without consequences leave low-income and other educationally “disadvantaged” students behind.

Title I, which sets these requirements, has another very important part — funding for grants to states and the local education agencies that administer regular public and public charter schools. About a third of the funds go to LEAs according formulas that target funds to schools with the most or highest percents of children in poverty.

The intent here, obviously, is to give these schools the additional resources they need to provide genuinely equal educational opportunities to children who would otherwise have a harder time mastering the knowledge and skills expected for their grade level.

The Senate bill preserves the targeting. This might seem such a sensible thing as to merit no comment — let alone a blog post. But it represents a significant achievement on the part of Senator Patty Murray, who brokered the bipartisan deal on behalf of the Democrats.

The original draft floated by HELP (Health, Education, Labor and Pensions) Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander would instead have allowed the money to follow the child — in other words, to let states shift a child’s share of the basic Title I grant to any public school s/he enrolls in.

This was a far less radical change than right-wingers like the Heritage Foundation and fellow travelers pushed for — and far less than leading Republican conservatives have sought for decades now.

I (showing her age) recall several efforts to achieve so-called Title I portability during the Reagan administration. They cropped up again in abortive attempts to reauthorize the ESEA in 1999 and 2007, when now-House Speaker John Boehner expressed the view that “the money belongs to the children” and thus should support “true parental choice.”

“Parental choice” — a favorite code phrase — means that the per-pupil Title I funds should follow the child to any school. That’s, of course, a gift not only to charter schools, but to private schools, including those operated by religious institutions.

Simply “a voucher by another name,” says the National Coalition for Public Education. Others have viewed even the modified public school version as a “back door” to vouchers.

Now, there’s surely something attractive in the notion that low and moderate-income parents should have the same chance to send their kids to private schools as wealthy parents. But Title I portability would hardly afford them this choice. A child’s share of the grant funds is too small.

More importantly, it denies Title I funds to high-poverty schools that need the money for the various programs and services that can help level the playing field for children who, for various reasons, often start kindergarten already behind.

Those located in high-poverty districts, as many are, already have less to spend because public schools get, on average, roughly a third of their funds from local property taxes — some least half.

The Center for American Progress contends that some states use funding formulas that make the inequities worse. So even with targeted Title I grants, the highest-poverty districts had $1,500 less per child to spend in 2012 than those with the fewest poor students — this from another CAP report, aimed directly at portability.

Now, no one’s altogether happy with the Senate bill — no one, at least, that I’ve found in my news feeds and Googling around. And no one, of course, can predict what will happen when the bill hits the floor — presumably open to any and every sort of amendment.

What will happen in the House is also a question mark. The responsible committee there has already passed a bill — not even remotely on a bipartisan basis. It includes, among other things, the public school portability provision that Alexander has, at least temporarily, given up on.

And Boehner has apparently given up — at least for the time being — on trying to get the House bill passed. Democrats unhappy with the portability provision, a funding cap that would lock in sequestration and what they perceive, with some justice, as an excess of state flexibility.

Tea Party types unhappy with the remaining degree of federal “control” — and the fact that the bill doesn’t let Title I funds follow children to private schools.

So we might not see the ESEA reauthorized this year — or next, for that matter. We certainly won’t see anything like the House bill become law because the White House issued a veto threat just before the House passed a similar bill in 2013.

Guess we’ll just have to wait and see. But if we see anything, I hope it preserves the targeting because high-poverty schools need more resources to give disadvantaged children the opportunities they deserve.

Bipartisan Senate Bill Tweaks No Child, But Leaves Most of Core Intact

April 30, 2015

As you may have read, we have another genuinely bipartisan bill in Congress. It’s the Senate HELP (Health, Education, Labor and Pensions) Committee’s legislation to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, now named No Child Left Behind.

It’s a big bill and undoubtedly raises many issues. The most controversial — and for the purposes of this blog, most important — concern Title I, originally Education for the Disadvantaged. The bill modifies requirements that have triggered attacks on No Child from various quarters.

But, in my view, it’s as notable for what it doesn’t do as what it does. I’ll deal here with the inflammatory testing issue. Expect a followup on how Title I would — or wouldn’t any more — targeted funding to schools with unusually high concentrations of students in poverty.

Standardized Tests and Consequences

Title I, in its No Child form, supposedly ushered in the testing regime that school districts have imposed — to the vocal distress of many classroom teachers, the unions that represent them and a growing number of parents.

No Child itself doesn’t require all that many tests — reading/language arts and math annually from third through eighth grade and once in high school, plus three science tests during these years.

What got the testing regime — and thus the anti-test fervor — going were the actions the law requires districts to take when a school’s scores fail to indicate “adequate yearly progress” toward full proficiency for virtually all students by 2014.

A four-year shortfall could mean replacing school staff and/or taking control away from school-level administrators. Another year and the school would have to be restructured, e.g., by firing most or all of the staff, turning the school into a charter school.

One can see why schools started testing much more frequently — and gearing curricula to boosting scores on the mandated tests. Why districts started using the scores to evaluate teachers is a bit more complex.

No Child itself doesn’t require this. But the U.S. Department of Education has used its considerable leverage to make test scores an important part of the evaluations that determine which teachers will be rewarded — and which ultimately fired.

It did this first by limiting its newly-created Race to the Top grants to states that agreed to use such evaluations and then by making them a condition of the waivers that a large majority of states and the District of Columbia have had to seek because schools weren’t hitting their AYP targets.

Testing in the Senate Bill

The Senate bill does several things that may result in less frequent testing, “teaching to the test” and the like. It grants states more flexibility. Natch. They can design their own accountability systems, using standardized test scores as they choose. Use them they must, however.

They and the decision-makers in the districts can decide what to do about schools that don’t measure up, rather than having to choose from a menu of increasingly drastic actions.

The federal government will have some grant money to help them, but it’s expressly prohibited from dictating specific steps — just as it’s expressly prohibited from using its leverage to promote cross-state standards like the now-maligned Common Core.

Still Tests, Broken-Out Scores and Public Reporting

Though states would gain some flexibility, the bill preserves the core purpose of Title I — equal education opportunities for low-income students and those, regardless of income, who belong to racial and ethnic minorities, have disabilities and/or are learning English as a second language.

It does that in part by preserving two of No Child’s major advances. One requires school districts to include at least 95% of each of these groups in their mandated testing. The other requires them to publicly report scores separate for each.

The “disadvantaged” students used to be left behind — and their neglect hard to prove, even when known — in part because school districts could report a single score per school.  They could — and in some cases, did — excuse some of the “disadvantaged” from having to take the tests or otherwise exclude them so as to keep them from dragging down the scores.

The bill won’t allow schools to revert to obfuscations of this sort. So anyone interested will still be able to know whether each of the specified disadvantaged groups has learned whatever the standards call for — and how they’re faring in comparison to their white, higher-income, native-born and non-disabled peers.

The bill also preserves a related accountability measure — the requirement that states allow students to take the tests used for the National Assessment of Education Progress. These tests are the same for the same grade levels throughout the country and remain relatively consistent over time.

NAEP can thus report quite reliable long-term trends. And it does so for individual states, with some relevant break-outs, e.g., by race, ethnicity and eligibility for free or reduced-price school meals — a common surrogate for low family income.

What this means is that there will still be a way to gauge the tests states themselves use to test core competencies — and to a limited extent, such progress as they report for some of the disadvantaged groups that President Johnson hoped would get a “passport from poverty” through “quality and equality in … [their] schooling.”





Some College Education Not Enough in DC’s Economy

February 5, 2015

As you may have noticed, this recovery that’s suppose to be more than five years old now hasn’t been one of those rising tides that lifts all boats. We’ve had scads of reports, media features and the like showing how more and more income is flowing to the already-rich, leaving the rest with a shrinking share.

A new report from the DC Fiscal Policy Institute zeroes in on one angle of this nationwide story — employment and wages in the District of Columbia. It does so mainly by comparing Census data for 2007, just before the recession set in, to comparable data for 2013.

The report’s subtitle tells that “DC’s Economic Recovery Is Not Reaching All Residents.” That’s an understatement. For example:

  • Low-wage workers, i.e., those with earnings in the bottom fifth, actually got paid a bit less per hour in 2013 than in 2007.
  • The unemployment rate for black workers was 6% higher late last summer than in 2007, though the overall unemployment rate in the District was just 2.1% higher.
  • About two and a half times as many black workers were jobless for at least six months in 2013 as in 2007.
  • Higher percents of black and Hispanic workers, especially the former, were working part time, though they wanted full-time jobs.

The big message underlying many of the figures and related graphs is that residents without at least a four-year college degree are no better off than they were before the recession. In some respects, they’re worse off.

We’re used to seeing dismal wage figures and relatively high unemployment rates for workers without a high school diploma or the equivalent. And we’ve surely got them in DCFPI’s report.

But the figures for District residents with some college education, including those with an associate’s degree are an eye-opener. We learn, for example, that:

  • The median hourly wage for the some-college group fell more, in dollars, than the median for workers with no more than a high school diploma.
  • At the same time, the median for residents with at least a four-year college degree increased by $2.00 an hour — roughly the same as what the some-college workers lost.
  • The unemployment rate for the some-college group was close to 15% in 2013. This is nearly three times the rate in 2007 — and only about 4% higher lower than the rate for residents without a high school diploma.
  • About 22% of the some-college workers were involuntary part-timers, i.e., wanted full-time work, but couldn’t get it.

Yet when DCFPI turns to what needs to be done, it focuses largely on the District’s lowest-wage workers — and those who either can’t get jobs or could, but can’t afford the collateral costs.

Our some-college workers may benefit from most of the recommendations, but only to the extent they’re as disadvantaged in our labor market as workers and potential workers without their formal education credentials.

For example, DCFPI puts in another plug for career pathways that integrate basic literacy and job training programs — not, one hopes, an approach our some-college residents need.

It also recommends that the District take better advantage of federal funds available for job training and related supports, e.g., transportation subsidies, through SNAP  (the food stamp program). This, I take it, means invest more local dollars because the U.S. Department of Agriculture will reimburse half of what’s spent on an approved plan.

Two other recommendations would help ease conflicts between work and family obligations. One would enable a worker to take paid leave in order to care for a new baby or ill family member. Obviously preferable to quitting, getting fired or, in the best of cases, losing wages you and other family members need.

Another recommendation — oft made and still not fully funded — would increase the reimbursement rates the District pays providers that care for children with publicly-funded subsidies.

We know that some providers won’t accept such children and that others limit the number they’ll accept because, in at least some cases, the reimbursements don’t even cover the costs of care.

Some parents who don’t work could. Others could work more. Wouldn’t do a thing for their wage rates or job prospects. But there’d be more income to spend on other needs.

Still another oft-made recommendation could boost earnings for thousands of workers in the District’s growing “hospitality” sector, as well as some others, e.g., hairdressers, the folks who deliver our pizzas. These are workers whom employers can pay as little as $2.77 an hour because they regularly receive tips.

DCFPI suggests a 70% increase in the tip credit wage — borrowing, it seems, from the long-stalled minimum wage bill in Congress. But it also notes that seven states have no tip credit wage at all — a model the District could follow, if policymakers would stand up to the restaurant and hotel industry lobbyists.

Don’t look to me — or, I would guess, other progressives — to argue against any of these recommendations. But, so far as I can see, none of them gets to the heart of the problem DCFPI illuminates.

If you live in the District, you’ll have a tough time getting — and keeping — a job that will pay enough to support a reasonably secure, comfortable lifestyle unless you’ve got at least a four-year college degree.

What our local policymakers can do about this I’m hard put to say. And I’m certainly not faulting DCFPI for teeing up a handful of quite modest recommendations they could adopt right now — or as part of the budget the mayor’s people are already working on.

But I don’t think we should just shrug our shoulders either. An economy that works for only about half the adults in the city isn’t, to borrow from DCFPI, “enabling all residents to succeed.”





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