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 Youth Perspective on Workforce Development for Young People

The National Youth Employment Coalition supports a variety of programs that put youth on the path towards gainful employment. Among these programs, supporting summer opportunities for academic and career development goes a long way to putting youth one step closer to being able to earn a sustainable wage. My name is Eashan Kaw, and as the policy intern at NYEC during the summer, I feel that I am in a position to provide a perspective of how opportunities like summer internships have contributed to my experiential learning beyond the scope of the college lecture hall.

When discussing solutions to the achievement and earnings gap, measures that improve classroom education loom large in the conversation. And it’s true, refreshing old instructional methods and reforming K-12 education is instrumental in nudging youth toward a brighter future. But we would be remiss to ignore the role work opportunities outside of the classroom play in turning youth into productive employees and citizens. Youth activities within the Workforce Investment Act bridge the gap between the classroom and workplace by placing disadvantaged youth into summer employment opportunities, work experiences, and other skills development programs.

Dealing with little details is how I’ve been learning the thought process required to evaluate changes in policy proposed in the bills. I can confidently say there was no class I took that prepared me for the at times labyrinthine, but ultimately rewarding experience of combing through hundreds of pages of legislative wonk-speak to find a policy change I was seeking. At times, navigating the sections, subsections, and sub-headers seemed like unpacking hundreds of verbose Russian nesting dolls. But embedded within an innocuous looking subsection would lie updated language informing the direction of future youth policy. Classroom instruction can cultivate a mindset and cognitive tools a person can use to judge the merits of a program, but nothing I encountered specifically prepared me for the unique syntax legislators use to draft bills. Other work I did, like writing blog posts, analyzing employment and graduation data, and researching legislation, provided ample opportunity to interpret and make judgments on real-world and often ambiguous information that can affect a number of stakeholders.

The broad takeaway I’ve learned through working this summer is while many tasks I had to complete were concretely defined, the means to solve the problem were up to me. Even if the specific task at hand was to write a report on monthly employment changes, I had the freedom to gather data however I wanted and add analysis I thought was prudent. This is usually the opposite of classroom learning, where the applications are abstractly defined, but the acceptable method for completing an assignment is confined to what the teacher wants you to use.   Working on the types of assignments typically done in full-time jobs provides an indicator that the education AND skills you bring with you are useful to employers in the marketplace. This is critical for professional development after finishing classroom education.

Summer work opportunities also provide valuable insight into finding out what careers fit well with your interests, what you are talented at, and what jobs you thought you liked, but actually didn’t. Being armed with this information allows you to choose future work options well-matched with your strengths and interests. Unfortunately, many youth across America do not have the same access to education, summer opportunities, and experiences that have enabled me to make what I have learned in school relevant to the workplace. That only underscores the importance of updating youth programs within the WIA, and increasing workforce development investments for those who need it most.

Just the Tip of the Iceberg: Federal Student Loan Reform

With the college academic year approaching, the July 1st doubling in student loan interest rates couldn’t have come at a worse time. Even with low rates on subsidized student loans, lending is big business for the Federal Government. In 2012, the government earned $51 billion from student loans, more than any corporation’s annual earnings. As such, with the jump in interest rates, it is projected that profits will increase an additional $21 billion if nothing is done.  That would mean further deficit reduction, but a heavier burden on student borrowers in the future.

While the student loan interest rates did double, not all hope is lost. To amend this situation, a bipartisan plan was crafted by Senate leadership to retroactively change interest rates and terms. The bipartisan language (H.R. 1911), which has now been approved by both the House and Senate, bears far more semblances to an earlier Senate bipartisan plan (S. 1334) than it does to the earlier House Republican plan (H.RES. 232). In fact, the final compromise language is the almost the exact same plan as the Senate bill, with the same interest rate ceilings and the provision to fix interest rate for the life of the loan. The only difference in this bill is that the interest rates for the loans are .2% higher than the rates proposed by Senators Joe Manchin, Angus King, and the Senate Republicans (S. 1334). This striking similarity between the compromise language and the earlier Senate proposal is probably because the Senate proposal already had bipartisan support, while the House proposal only had House Republican support.  The .2% rate increase from the Senate bill at face value looks like a measure inserted to satisfy members of the House seeking greater revenue from student loans to potentially pay for the deficit.

With all the attention focused on interest rates, other important measures like income based repayment have slipped through the cracks. Income-based repayment (IBR) programs index annual payments to the borrower’s income. The current Pay-as-you-Earn program calculates payments to a maximum 10% of the borrower’s salary. The idea enjoys widespread support, as it was originally proposed by famed economist Milton Freidman. The logic behind the policy is simple: college graduates make more money as their career progresses. As graduates make more, they have more disposable income to pay down their debts. Unfortunately, standard loan repayment options have constant monthly payments to pay down interest and debt. This conventional strategy makes sense for auto and home loans, where people have stable, predictable income. For college graduates, having constant monthly payments eat into their more modest entry-level income.  If there is high unemployment the situation becomes even worse because students have no savings to fall back on. Under IBR, students would no longer have to pay monthly payments even if they are making little to no income. As such, tying repayments to income alleviates the threat of bankruptcy from unexpected changes in employment or income.

Even though Congress expanded the program in 2010, private loan servicers (collectors) have been hesitant in offering this as a repayment option to borrowers. In this regard, none of the above proposals do enough to expand the usage of this program. Rather, the Excel Act (H.R. 1716), a proposal that isn’t endorsed by any party, does more to make IBR the standardized repayment system. The Excel Act proposes making repaying a student loan like a withholding tax. When the student graduates, a percentage of their income paid without any extra paper work, bypassing servicers who avoid giving students these flexible terms. While the Excel Act offers no student loan forgiveness, it goes a long way to making the debt easier for students to bear. Future proposals should make IBR the standard method of repayment to reduce the number of students defaulting on their student loans.

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.

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.