In Focus

Mar 7, 2014  |  PERMALINK »

President’s Budget Calls for New Investments in Workforce and Basic Skills Services

By Neil Ridley

President Obama’s FY 2015 budget released on Tuesday calls for new investments that prepare workers for jobs in demand and put unemployed people back to work. The proposal comes at a time of weak job growth, with the national unemployment rate still above 6 percent. Long-term unemployment, in particular, remains high;  3.8 million workers have been out of work for 27 weeks or longer and nearly 6.7 million young adults ages 16-24 are neither working nor in school. The budget proposal also comes a few months after the release of international data showing that 36 million Americans have low basic skills and are likely to have difficulty obtaining family-supporting jobs. 

The FY 2015 budget request for workforce and basic skills programs is consistent with the spending cuts established in last year’s budget agreement. Funding levels for state and locally administered programs under the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) and most national workforce programs are maintained at the FY 2014 level. The proposal signals a new direction by including targeted investments amounting to about 5 percent of WIA formula grants in three areas:

  • $80 million for incentive grants to encourage states that improve employment and earnings outcomes for workers who face the most difficulty in the labor market;
  • Increased funding, up to $60 million, for competitive grants through the Workforce Innovation Fund; and
  • $15 million for industry-based partnerships focused on preparing workers for jobs in demand.

The proposal also calls for $20 million in Skills Challenge grants on top of the formula grants provided to states every year for adult education and literacy. This new grant program would fund partnerships implementing bridge strategies and other models that integrate basic skills preparation with occupational skills training. These strategic investments in workforce and basic skills services would support innovative approaches and encourage greater attention to the needs of individuals with low education and skill levels and barriers to employment. The proposal also includes proposed investments in job creation for disadvantaged workers.

In addition to the budget request, the President seeks congressional approval for a $56 billion Opportunity, Growth and Security Initiative (OGSI) that proposes additional investments for key priorities, including expanded access to early childhood education, infrastructure and jobs, research, public health, and national security. Included in the priorities for employment and training are:

  • $750 million (in addition to more than $3 billion in the budget request) to restore recent cuts to Workforce Investment Act formula grants to states, increase support for research and innovation, and make targeted investments in programs that serve individuals with barriers to employment;
  • $1.5 billion for the first year of a four-year Community College Job-Driven Training Fund, which will provide competitive grants designed to increase the number of training programs and apprenticeships supported by employers and focused on jobs in demand; and
  • $125 million (in addition to $25 million in the budget request) to expand the research-based Jobs Plus model, which connects public housing residents with job opportunities.

The release of the President’s budget is the first step in the annual budget and appropriations process. It is now up to Congress to set priorities for the budget and determine program funding levels. The blueprint released on Tuesday can guide lawmakers as they consider critical investments to prepare more low-income adults and youth for jobs and careers in what is still a tough labor market.

Feb 13, 2014  |  PERMALINK »

From Adult Education to College: Success Factors, Challenges, and Tools

By Manuela Ekowo and Vickie Choitz

A recent MDRC report, Beyond the GED: Promising Models for Moving High School Dropouts to College, provides a snapshot of innovative adult education programs and the challenges involved in helping high school dropouts acquire a GED and gain postsecondary credentials. Considering that nearly 39 million adults in the U.S do not have a high school diploma, and fewer than 5 percent of GED recipients go on to enroll in college or other adult education programs, this issue is critical.

The study finds that the most successful adult education programs for high school dropouts contextualize basic skills and GED instruction within specific career fields and support students in their transition to college. These programs offer more rigorous academic curricula, as well as support services such as career and college admissions advising. Supporting students in their transition to college has been shown to increase the rate of their entry, persistence, and success.

Unfortunately, fragmented funding streams, lack of coordination among government agencies, and lack of college-readiness courses for those with skills below the ninth-grade level often make adult education programs less effective than they could be.

By limiting participation in these innovative programs to students with skills at the ninth grade level or above, Adult Basic Education (ABE) and Adult Secondary Education (ASE) programs are effectively barring 80 percent of students from these innovations.  This is even more startling when one considers that 40 percent of students have skills below the sixth grade level.

One way to tackle the issue is to offer career pathway bridge programs, which provide targeted basic skills or English language instruction to lower-skilled adults and youth. These bridge programs, which often begin at the sixth grade level, enable students to enter and succeed in career pathways. For those with the lowest skill levels, there are even some “pre-bridge” programs to prepare them for the career pathway bridge. Bridge and pre-bridge “on-ramps” are essential features of career pathways in CLASP’s Alliance for Quality Career Pathways (AQCP), a two-year initiative with 10 leading career pathway states to identify criteria and indicators that define high-quality career pathway systems and a set of shared performance metrics for measuring and managing their success.

Fragmented funding is also a major challenge. Adult education programs have come to survive on a complicated array of federal and state funding streams, which are managed by numerous government agencies. Each of these funding streams comes with different restrictions and performance measures that are not well-aligned. This is a common challenge for career pathway efforts, as well, which is why CLASP developed a funding toolkit for career pathways and career pathway bridges to help interagency state teams identify and use federal resources to support career pathways and career pathway bridges for adults and out-of-school youth. The toolkit helps state agency staff and practitioners identify opportunities for braiding funding streams and begin creating plans and partnerships toward this end.

More attention should be paid to the number of individuals without a high school diploma and effective strategies to help them obtain their GED and postsecondary credentials. With this report, MDRC has highlighted very promising models for doing so.

Jan 15, 2014  |  PERMALINK »

A Look at the New Federal Spending Bill: How Does It Affect Key Programs for Low-Income Children, Youth, Families, and Individuals?

By: Elizabeth Lower-Basch, Hannah Matthews and Neil Ridley

As the result of bi-partisan negotiations, Congress will consider by the end of the week a $1.1 trillion federal omnibus appropriations bill for federal fiscal year (FY) 2014 (October 1, 2013 – September 30, 2014).  This bill sets spending levels for each federal program, fleshing out the framework set by the October deal that ended the 16-day partial federal government shutdown.  As we wrote then, agreement on the deal represented an important step towards a more stable budget process, enabling programs to plan and operate more smoothly, and partially repealing the sequester for 2014.  Passage of the omnibus legislation is the next step in the process.

Under the terms of this week’s deal, overall federal discretionary spending for FY 2014 will be 2.6% over the post-sequester budget for FY 2013.  The fiscal relief is not evenly spread, with some programs receiving significant increases, while others continue at lower levels. 

Among programs for low-income people, the most significant increases are for child care and early learning programs, with a focus on young children from birth to age 4.  This increase is significant because of the amount (more than $1.4 billion) and because young children are the poorest Americans.

However, funding is still constrained — and will be even tighter next year. Even after restoring the majority of the sequestration cuts, most programs are funded at slightly lower levels for FY 2014 than FY 2012.

Beyond the omnibus, there remains crucial unfinished business for Congress from the perspective of low-income people. The omnibus bill does not address several areas of particular importance to low-income people.  In particular, the bill overlooks the restoration of federal extended unemployment compensation benefits for the long-term unemployed that expired at the end of December.  Congress is also still considering a Farm Bill that may include significant cuts to SNAP.


Here’s a summary of how this spending bill affects a number of programs important to helping poor and low-income families and individuals attain economic security:

  • Child care and early learning receives a boost of $1.4 billion, which includes a $154 million increase for the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG), $1.025 billion increase for Head Start and Early Head Start, and $250 million for a new round of Race to the Top grants to develop, expand, and enhance state preschool programs for low-income children. The Head Start and Early Head Start increase includes $500 million for partnerships between Early Head Start programs and child care, intended to expand the availability of quality care for low-income young children from birth to age 4.  While smaller than the President’s Strong Start proposal, the increase is consistent with the directions laid out in that proposal and reflects a bi-partisan interest in early childhood investment.
  • Most workforce programs are restored to just under their FY 2012 funding levels.  However, the Employment Service is continued at its FY 2013 post-sequester level of $664 million, while state grants under the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act will be at the FY 2013 post-sequester level of $563.6 million.  This comes a few months after the release of new data showing that nearly one in five Americans has low basic skills.
  • Programs that impact low-income college students are largely spared any funding cuts, with varied levels of restoration from pre-sequester levels. In addition, aid programs will see increases.  Pell Grant maximum awards will get an automatic inflationary increase to $5,730 for the 2014-15 award year from the current level of $5,645. And funding for two major campus-based programs that support low-income students, Federal Work-Study and Supplemental Education Opportunity Grants, is nearly restored to pre-sequester levels with an increase of more than $49 million and nearly $37 million, respectively, over last year.
  • The legislation also reflects an increasing focus on completion in higher education. It provides $75 million for President Obama’s new “First in the World” grant program for higher education institutions to spur the adoption of innovative, effective strategies that improve affordability and completion for students.  The bill also includes language requiring the Department of Education to report on the graduation outcomes of students receiving Pell Grants.

One of the benefits of the October budget agreement and this omnibus bill is simply that they avoid another government shutdown and provide programs with stability in funding – an opportunity that advocates, practitioners, and state and federal policymakers should seize to make improvements in the quality and effectiveness of services.  Similarly, the bill provides a clean extension through the end of the fiscal year for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF block grant).  It also provides funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), ensuring that crucial program will continue without interruption this year regardless of whether Congress reauthorizes it as part of the Farm Bill. 

As we applaud the increased funding provided to many vital programs supporting low-income children, families and individuals in FY 2014, however, it is important to remember that  the budget agreement provides only temporary relief from the  sequester.  Perhaps the biggest bit of unfinished business is the need for Congress to repeal the sequester, which continues to set arbitrary targets for discretionary spending.  These caps force Congress to choose between programs no matter how effective or how well-targeted they are to the real needs of America’s people.  This is no way to make progress.


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