Under the Radar: A Closer Look at a Surprising Underlying Cause of Unemployment

On October 23rd, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute hosted an event, entitled “Common Core & Curriculum Controversies,” it featured a series of discussions regarding Common Core math myths, Common Core aligned texts, and Common Core implementation. During one session Dr. Tim Shanahan, Professor of Urban Education at the University of Illinois Chicago, noted that most teachers (roughly two-thirds) place students according to reading levels and not grade levels. Furthermore, he elaborated that students’ rankings are often decreased by one or two levels.

Far too often, students are assigned to reading levels that are below their current grade levels and are rarely given the opportunity to catch up with other students who are consistently progressing within the areas of literacy and reading comprehension. Due to this phenomenon, countless students are not offered opportunities to interact with challenging materials and concepts that they may be capable of learning and understanding, because most of them are promoted throughout the years without gaining the necessary basic literacy and reading comprehension skills (for examples, look at the New York City Department of Education, the Saint Louis Public Schools, or a new law in Florida). Ultimately, this practice brings about issues within the spheres of workforce development and education which lead to further problems pertaining to employment.

Students who graduate high school lacking basic literacy and numeracy skills are likely to encounter difficulties when entering the workforce– in fact, many individuals with low literacy skills are more prone to drop out of school prior to graduation. Concerning unemployment, studies show that approximately 27 million American are unable to complete forms necessary for employment, such as job applications. In addition, people with literacy-related deficiencies are more likely to have limited job options and lose their jobs.

Many workforce development and education organizations, while directly assisting individuals with low literacy skills in obtaining employment, are tasked with the responsibility of helping individuals to improve their literacy and reading comprehension skills as a means of helping them to effectively and efficiently join the workforce. Due to funding structures and reporting requirements that emphasize impossibly quick gains, organizations with the goal of catching individuals with low literacy skills up to sufficient literacy levels are finding that their objective is hampered from the start.

In many cases, even when individuals with low literacy skills do obtain jobs, they are often categorized by employers as individuals of lower qualification and skill levels, therefore often earning lower wages. This is partly a result of the fact that individuals with a limited number of qualifications and skills are often hired to perform low-paying jobs that don’t revolve around complexity and skillfulness. Furthermore, in the long run, people with low literacy skills are 16.5 times more prone to rely on welfare and other forms of income support. They are also more likely take on jobs that lack social benefits, to experience more barriers when attempting to exercise socio-economic mobility, and to be victims of poverty. In fact, 43% of adults who live in poverty are of low literacy.

Many of the potential issues that individuals face, in regards to employment, could have been avoided in the early stages of their adolescence. It is no secret that one’s life is often decided for them by their educational placement in elementary, middle, and high school. In order to prevent the future generation from experiencing these reoccurring dilemmas, it is pivotal that parents, teachers, policymakers, and other organizations work together to ensure that every student is able to reach their full potential and showcase their abilities before they are assessed and placed incorrectly.

Flirting with Disaster: Shutdown Effects on Youth-Focused Programs

As governmental tensions escalated, millions tuned in to news specials, listened to political radio broadcasts, and read newspapers in an attempt to grasp an understanding of the uncertain future of the federal government. The House and the Senate could not agree on and pass a spending bill that would fund the government; the debate heavily related to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare. The disagreement resulted in the government closing its doors at midnight on October 1.

With the shutdown coming to an end, looking back, much of the early publicized concern resulting from the government shutdown revolved around federal workers. However, many government programs that assist youth and their families were faced with issues that could have, and did, prevent them from providing a number of services. In fact, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) speculated that, without the help of the federal government, most state-operated programs that provide assistance, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), would only be able to operate for about a week before they began to run out of resources.

SNAP distributes food stamps to eligible families and individuals. This program is especially important to youth because there are young people present in more than 50% of the households that receive these food stamps. Also, food stamps are often provided to young people towards the beginning of their careers, which is often the most financially unstable stage of their lives. Though SNAP benefits are managed by the state, they are awarded by the federal government. In the midst of this government shutdown, SNAP continued to operate, but the program would have suffered if the impasse lasted any longer, thus threatening its November funding.

TANF is a cash assistance program that aims to benefit families with dependent children and pregnant women by assisting them in obtaining the fundamental necessities for their children; additionally, roughly one-third of TANF beneficiaries are under the age of 24. The program’s funding expired on Tuesday, October 1, the same day as the government shutdown. October checks had already been allocated to qualified families prior to the shutdown. However, the distribution of November checks was not guaranteed if the government shutdown lasted past the end of this month.

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, better known as WIC, is in a predicament similar to that of TANF and SNAP. WIC is a federal assistance program that provides nutritional foods, health education, and recommendations to other essential services for women, from teenagers to adults, who are pregnant, breastfeeding, or postpartum, as well as their children under the age of five.

As a result of the government shutdown, many youth-centered programs established by the Workforce Investment Act, or WIA, were forced to limit their services and send employees home. Fortunately, WIA youth-focused programs were better equipped for the shutdown financially, as opposed to others. This is largely due to the fact that the WIA Youth funds for the Program Year (June 2013 – June 2014) were distributed back in April 2013. Furthermore, job training and education programs for youth and young adults often have diversified funding portfolios, thus enabling some continuance of services even when one source is terminated.

With the government shutdown officially over, it is both possible and plausible that the temporary closed doors of the government, coupled with the tensions of the legislative branch, reveal that the political road ahead is not going to be a smooth one. One day into the government shutdown, programs were already facing financial quandaries. The two-week shutdown of the government definitely proved to have an adverse effect on programs and efforts that aid youth and their families. An extended government shutdown would have definitely led to the temporary shutdown of these programs and many more.

This government shutdown serves as an indication of the nature of political debates to come. This is problematic due to the fact that the current political tensions could harm the progress of congressional discussions and decisions relating to aspects that directly impact younger populations, such as the Higher Education Act, WIA, and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (No Child Left Behind Act). With many of these laws long overdue for updates, the well-being of the American youth and young adults should not have to wait any longer. To emphasize this point, NYEC helped craft and also signed on to a letter advocating for the Senate to discuss reauthorizing WIA on the floor. To sign on your organization, please click here.

Impacts of Shutdown Day?

The deadline for Congress to finalize how to fund federal programming in Fiscal Year 2014 was last night at midnight. Because an agreement was not reached by that point, the federal government shuttered all “non-essential” activities. Regardless of how long a possible shutdown lasts, we want to hear from you about its impacts on your organization’s activities. Even if there are no impacts, or they are not immediate but still exist, please post that, as it is an important insight.

Participate in the conversation using the comment section below – please keep all comments specific to effects on your work within the fields of workforce development, education, and/or youth development for individuals in the 14-24 age range. You do not have to identify your program, but please provide some context regarding your operations.

Finally, feel free to forward this to colleagues, partner organizations, etc. so they can participate as well.

UPDATE: The shutdown officially ended on October 17th, but programs may experience some lag time and be unable to resume normal operations immediately.

 

A U.S. Role in Syria? – Domestic Implications of International Action

After a month of recess, Congress’s re-emergence in Washington on September 9th had a strange feel to it. In recent years, this annual return is often accompanied by great fanfare regarding an impending decision that must be made on the federal budget for the coming fiscal year which begins October 1st. This year, however, was much more tempered – it seemed like the focus was actually on the work that needed to be done rather than informing media outlets about the work that needed to be done. In this case, the work that required immediate attention referenced the ongoing conflict in Syria and whether or not the United States should become militarily involved.

Syria is a hot-button issue with a variety of opinions about how the United States should proceed. However, aside from that debate it is important to keep in mind what role the discussions surrounding Syria have on the larger-scale issue of the country’s current financial situation. Just last year, essentially all federally funded operations were dealt a significant financial blow via the funding cuts associated with sequestration. Investing resources in the Syria conflict could drastically alter the federal government’s fiscal dynamics.

More specifically, sequestration has pitted military and defense activities against domestic, non-defense programming (includes workforce development, education, and youth development activities), with a great argument over the cuts attributed to each. With sequestration existing as a zero-sum scenario (decreasing the cuts to defense would conversely cause an increase in cuts to non-defense programming), the current discussions regarding Syria could throw a wrench into an already polarized debate about the allocation of federal resources.

Whether or not the United States actually takes military action in Syria, the whole situation seems to provide more credence to the argument that defense programming needs more funding. On its own, that stance sounds fair, but within the contemporary fiscal climate surrounding the federal government, every decision inevitably has an impact on other activities. With federal  programming that focuses on education, development, and job training for youth and young adults in financial jeopardy, any sudden changes (without considering the ramifications or collateral damage) could be crippling.

Regardless of political leanings, the idea that everything is connected to everything else must be acknowledged by everyone. It is unfortunate that a particular issue can no longer be judged independently on its own merits, but this is the world that we now live in.

First in Your Hearts, But Last Where It Counts: Further Analysis on Spending for Social Programs

As Congress moves forward to provide funding for all federal activities, the House and Senate Appropriations Committees have released their proposed allocations to the 12 subcommittees, who will then use those top-line numbers to delineate program-specific funding levels. Due to steps farther along in the budgeting process, these top-line subcommittee allocations almost never represent the reality, but they do provide insight into the political and advocacy landscape.

In the Senate and House, growth in U.S. Departments of Labor, Health & Human Services, and Education (Labor-H) funding from 2007-2013 has lagged behind the growth in the overall budget during the same period. This means that Labor-H’s overall share of funding has dropped relative to its level in 2007. Senate funding proposals have been fairly stable, but House funding has been particularly erratic. Proposals since fiscal year 2012 have begun a trend of steep, double-digit cuts in Labor-H allocations. Comparatively, the funding pattern for Defense in the House and Senate, outpaced the growth of the overall budget from 2007-2013. The net result is that Labor-H programs have been consistently receiving smaller pieces of the overall budgetary pie in both chambers of Congress. The House subcommittee allocations for 2014 only continue the downward trajectory with a 20% cut for Labor-H, even though the overall budget only decreases about 6% from the 2013 proposals.

The big picture highlights the low priority of Labor-H programming by suggesting that when the budget grows, Labor-H doesn’t grow as fast, and when the budget shrinks, Labor-H shrinks faster.  In fact, the only programs that gained ground and received a greater fraction of the allocations in both the House and Senate were Defense, Homeland Security, Military Construction, and Veterans’ Affairs. People may attribute the massive growth in Defense to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but much of the money for those wars was earmarked as overseas contingencies. Combine that with the present political climate and it is virtually impossible that any reduced spending from troop withdrawals will be reallocated to Labor-H programming.

2010 and 2011 were the only years when growth in proposed Labor-H funding outpaced total budget growth. There are a few reasons for this anomaly. Much of the gain probably can be attributed to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, enacted in 2009, which provided additional funding to programs within the Labor-H umbrella. Another, more indirect, cause of the growth could be the increased organizational power and influence of young people and youth groups after their pivotal role in getting President Obama elected. Whatever the reason, the boost in funding was short-lived. During 2011, when the partisan spotlight was on the budget, Labor-H funding was dramatically cut by the House.

The fluctuations within House subcommittee allocations over the past few years may be explained by the changes in the party composition of the House after 2010, affecting all years after fiscal year 2011. In contrast, consistency of the Senate majority could contribute to the relative stability of the Senate appropriations for Labor-H.

The situation for future Labor-H funding does not look very optimistic. The House continues to propose enormous cuts to funding to reduce the deficit, and likely will not shift in party control in 2014 due to the economic recovery. The class of Senators running for reelection in 2014 was the same class that was elected before Labor-H allocation growth reached its zenith, so it isn’t likely they will be replaced by anyone friendlier to Labor-H funding.

Basement Dwellers: Social Programs at Bottom of Federal Funding Hierarchy

With the process underway to determine the federal funding levels for the next fiscal year (FY 2014 starts October 1, 2013), it is unclear how things will unfold for youth employment and education programming (primarily operating within the U.S. Departments of Labor, Health & Human Services, Education). Based on the trend over the past several years, there should be no expectations that workforce development, education, and youth development will fare favorably overall.

Last year, the U.S House of Representatives Appropriations Committee voted on bills for all 12 clusters of federal government activity except for one.  Agencies within the U.S. Departments of Labor, Health & Human Services, and Education were the sole entities, for which the Committee did not even vote on a bill. Providing context to that peculiarity, a former member of that Committee later commented about how the bill was so bad that no one wanted to attach their name to it.

Fast forward to March 2013, when Congress is attempting to determine the final funding levels for FY 2013. The proposals produced by the House of Representatives and the Senate offered updated funding levels and prioritization based on 2013 circumstances instead of outdated 2011 circumstances. However, the Departments of Labor, Health & Human Services, Education again were denied favorable treatment in this regard.

Subsequently, Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) offered an amendment to the Senate’s March 2013 proposal that provided updated information and funding levels for activities within the Departments of Labor, Health & Human Services, Education. Senator Harkin’s amendment included many increases in funding for programs, and would not have added any cost to the bill. Ultimately, however, Senator Harkin’s proposal failed to garner enough votes within the Senate.

Why do the Departments of Labor, Health & Human Services, Education continue to get the short end of the stick within Congressional discussions regarding funding? While definitive answers are hard to provide, social programming in general (overwhelmingly falls within the Departments of Labor, Health & Human Services, Education) is a major point of partisan debate, which contributes greatly to the overall inaction.

Despite the grim trends for youth employment and education programming funding in the past, future prospects will depend on the efforts of advocates across the country.

Picking Your Poison: Flexibility to Find Least Painful Sequestration Implementation

Now that H.R. 933 has confirmed the federal sequester’s funding cuts at least through the rest of Fiscal Year 2013 (ends September 30, 2013), the impacts of how the required reduction amounts will be garnered are still the subject of much speculation. Even though the foundation behind sequestration lay in its across-the-board model for exacting funding cuts (so all agencies and their programs equally shared the burden of deficit reduction), H.R. 933 did include some special provisions for certain federal agencies.

For example, the bill offered to military and veterans programs some flexibility in how they distribute the cuts instead of being forced to abide by the across-the-board model of uniform reductions across activities. Regardless, the Departments of Labor, Health & Human Services, and Education must abide by the across-the-board model of exacting funding reductions. Even so, the uniformity is only mandated down to a certain level – 5.1% is not cut from every single expense and employee’s salary. Subsequently, there is a degree of flexibility in how federal agencies reduce their budgets, because the 5.1% is only dictated at the program/activity level.

One common, and much publicized, way of cutting the appropriate amount of spending is to enact furlough days for employees. In other words, the cuts are impacting those who are responsible with administering and managing programs at the federal level. Some larger programs have even more flexibility and are able to avoid even issuing furlough notices and instead are relying on reducing less essential expenses (travel, event, etc. budgets).

Disappointingly, there has been some talk about some grant programs cutting funding from the actual pot from which the grants are doled out. While prioritizing what is spared from funding reductions is inescapably contentious, some methods do sound better than others. While furloughs (reducing staff/salaries is not ideal) it does seem preferable than reducing the funds via federal grant programs. Cutting funds dispersed to states and local areas has a more directly negative effect on the program itself because it targets the services that can be provided.

Sequestration in itself is tough to swallow, but are there best practices in how to cut the required amounts from programmatic budgets? Do certain methods simply exacerbate the problem?