Dulling the Double-Edged Sword: Immigration Reform in the Senate

Much of the media’s spotlight in the past few weeks has been shining on the debate and passage of the immigration bill in the Senate. However, within a package of amendments is a nugget of good news for youth workforce development advocates as well.

Senator Bernard Sanders of Vermont, along with six other Senators, authored a “Youth Jobs” amendment that appropriated $1.5 billion to youth employment programs. Some may consider this amendment irrelevant to the underlying purpose of the bill. Because the amendment affects all low-income youth, not just young undocumented-immigrants and “DREAMers,” critics could argue that it is outside the scope of the bill’s purpose. That assessment would be mistaken, however, as an influx of guest workers for low-wage and seasonal labor will hurt young workers the most. This amendment therefore stems the harm that may come from depressed wages and/or decreasing opportunities by providing training and employment tailored for youth.

The funds will be spent over two years with a minimum of $7.5 million going to each state. Amounts above that will be tied to the state’s unemployment rate. The program will be funded with a one-time $10 fee on each guest worker visa application that businesses use to bring in workers. Possible programs it could fund include job training during both the summer and the year for low-income students eligible for Workforce Investment Act (WIA) programming. These programs will be linked to educational opportunities in order to provide long-term value for these young workers. It is estimated that this amendment will create 400,000 jobs for the youth aged 16-24.

Fresh appropriations to youth workforce development are a small, but welcome infusion to decreased workforce investment spending. Youth unemployment remains high (over 16% for adolescents aged 16-24), and experiencing unemployment when young is very damaging to future career prospects. Thus, it is prudent to bolster funding to WIA programs. The best situation would be to actually reauthorize WIA, but this amendment is a step in the right direction.

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?

Never-Ending “Fiscal Cliff” Drama Set to Continue

After many weeks of negotiations over how to avoid going over the “fiscal cliff,” Congress approved a short-term solution after a last-ditch effort by Vice President Joe Biden and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY). Many people thought that a solution would not be agreed upon before the fiscal cliff deadlines, while others remained confident that policymakers would be able to work together. Ironically, both schools of thought were correct – Congress did not vote on the American Taxpayer Relief Act until January 1st, and President Obama did not sign it into law until January 2nd. Therefore, technically the country did roll over the “cliff” whilst still hanging on by a fingernail – the deadline for decisions on the tax cuts was December 31st, but the federal spending sequester was not scheduled for implementation until January 2nd. Essentially, the American Taxpayer Relief Act allowed the country to let go from that January cliff edge and drop relatively unscathed to a newly discovered ledge below only to teeter on the edge of another cliff.

The resulting solution to the “cliff” really was a compromise with legislators from both sides expressing concern and dissatisfaction over the deal, but the bottom line is that a perceived major economic meltdown was averted for the time being. The January 2013 “fiscal cliff” was comprised of potential increases in taxes, the automatic federal funding cuts associated with sequestration, and the need to address the nation’s debt ceiling again (the instigating factor that set the nation on a course towards the fiscal cliff). The “solution,” called the American Taxpayer Relief Act, is true to its name because it really only addressed the most pressing tax issue (expiring tax cuts) component of the January 2012 “fiscal cliff” – sequestration is still scheduled to occur (delayed two months) and the debt ceiling is still a topic of debate. Therefore, any relief from the “fiscal cliff” drama will be short-lived because many of the same problems persist without answers, only to be tackled in February and March of 2013.

With the implementation of sequestration cuts in federal funding pushed back until March 1st, Congress and the Obama Administration will have more time to hammer out a more permanent solution. Even though the sequestration cuts will be less than before (new revenues from the American Taxpayer Relief Act must be accounted for), they still involve larger systemic questions that have been recent sources of tremendous political posturing. While the end result could be characterized as bi-partisan, the preceding process was coupled with constant partisan rhetoric that played out via a consistent stream of press releases and announcements by those involved (as well as those who weren’t).

Brinkmanship has continued to get worse over the past few years. Will going over the “fiscal cliff” in January 2013 lead to tumbling off in a free fall in March? The next 49 days will surely be interesting…

Focus on Reducing Spending Is Ruining Goal of Good Programs

A recent event at the Brookings Institution discussed the post-election landscape for programming that impacts low-income populations. Often current discussions on reform focus on simplifying programming through only supporting activities that have an existing evidence base illustrating success. While promising and proven practices should be a goal, unfortunately many legislators link this model to the assumption that such reforms will automatically save much money. Therefore, those policymakers often attach up-front spending cuts to any proposals to improve programming. Trying to combat this perspective, there was an expressed desire among speakers at this Brookings event to find a way to separate attempts at cutting federal spending from attempts to reform and improve programs. Reducing spending through efficiency is an admirable goal, and hopefully reforms do make programs more efficient. But savings through simplification of service delivery should not be assumed outright and without regard to potentially increasing need. This focus on spending reduction is a key sticking point preventing legislators from finding common ground on reauthorizing or updating legislation, which would provide much-needed reforms to programs that assist youth and young adults.

With such intense focus on evidence-based practices, program evaluation is now explicitly tied to funding. Subsequently, service providers are often reluctant to let researchers in because they fear a bad evaluation, which could effectively eliminate any funding for their programming. As noted by researchers involved in evaluation during a September panel discussion at the American Enterprise Institute, evaluation is meant to help programs improve their services for the future, not as a judge and jury to determine whether a program receives funding or not.

While speaking at the Brookings event, Gene Sperling, Director of the White House National Economic Council, similarly advocated for evaluation and data collection to be disconnected from funding decisions. A model that emphasizes evidence-based practices can be useful, but should not be taken so far as to determine the role of government in the employment training and education field. As Mr. Sperling pointed out, there should not be a double standard to programs for disadvantaged populations. He mentioned, for example, when particular medical research does not result in a cure for cancer, people do not respond by saying that the government should not dedicate resources to cancer research. Yet programming specifically designed to help disadvantaged populations must constantly face this funding-oriented obstacle.

Sequestration: Ushering in a New Way for Programs to Lose Money?

Usually, funding for federal programming within the fields of workforce development, youth development, and education is determined through the appropriations process. During this process, members of the Congressional Appropriations Committees hear testimony by agency officials as well as outside experts to inform their decisions regarding funding for federal programs and activities.

Sequestration (for more information, see NYEC’s issue brief on sequestration), however, represents a very different approach to reducing funding for federal programming. Instead of cutting funding on a program-by-program basis according to a perceived decrease in need/effectiveness, sequestration will use the blunt instrument of across-the-board reductions in federal funding.  Besides the actual amounts cut from federal job training and education programs, this approach is significant because of its detrimental side effect for advocacy. Alternatives to sequestration are still possible, but the total amount that must be reduced will not change (unless federal revenues increase due to taxes), thus creating a zero-sum situation. All programs are connected, because lessening the cut for one program would increase the cuts to other programs.

Could reducing the budget through sequestration, be an indication for how funding is determined in the future? Will advocates and proponents for federal job training and education efforts be forced to choose between their programs or defense activities and national security? Considering a widespread desire among current lawmakers to avoid the sequestration cuts, this will likely not serve as a model for the future. However, some elements of sequestration could unfortunately still be applied on a smaller scale – instead of making non-defense programming compete with defense (like sequestration), non-defense programming could be singularly targeted for across-the-board cuts or tasked with reducing overall spending by a certain amount. This approach would create a competitive atmosphere, similar to the effects of sequestration, where service providers are pitted against each other in their attempts to save their programs.