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Representatives and the Senate offered updated funding levels and prioritization based on 2013 circumstances instead of outdated 2011 circumstances.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.

Advertisements

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.

Federal Funding: A Delicate Balance between Flexibility and Effectiveness

During the 2012 campaign season, there was renewed focus on a topic that has arisen in recent legislation that would affect workforce development, youth development, and education systems. The idea of sending more federal money straight to states has been mentioned in presidential debates, campaign speeches, bills to reauthorize the Workforce Investment Act, etc. Often this strategy takes the form of distributing block grants with little to no stipulations to state authorities, who then decide how best to spend those dollars.

The obvious benefit to this type of funding model is that it provides states with maximum flexibility, so they can focus on the most relevant issues in their regions. However, there is also an inherent detriment in that many of the guidelines, concerning how such funding should be used, are stripped. Many of these rules were created as the result of a specific need. For example, populations that are most in need, such as low-income youth and young adults, are generally (1) more difficult to serve or (2) they require different types of services or a different structure of service provision. When funding decisions are made only at the state level without any targeted provisions, such groups often receive ineffective/insufficient services or not at all, even though they need the services just as much as other individuals.

It difficult to try to choose between flexibility and ensuring that everyone has access to services, as there are clear benefits to both outcomes. Therefore the question becomes what is an effective combination of these two concepts.