Next Coronavirus package must do more for youth and young adults

By: Kisha Bird and Lashon Amado*

Today, the president signed the third coronavirus response package, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, that was passed by the Senate and House. The bill includes funding for hospitals, medical facilities, and health care professionals; direct stimulus payments to workers and expanded unemployment insurance and benefits; and fiscal relief to states and localities, which are critical in responding to the global pandemic and economic crisis. These investments are important for all communities and workers, including youth and young adults. For example, some youth and young adults may have access to:

  • Stimulus payments – the bill provides $1,200 for adults making less than $75,000 ($150,000 for a joint return), plus another $500 per child (for children under 17 years old). Reduced checks will go out to individuals making up to $99,000 a year. Young people over 18 years old who are not claimed as tax dependents are eligible if they have a 2018 or 2019 tax return. You are also eligible if you are 17 years old and independent. People who have not yet filed a 2019 tax return have until July 15, 2020, to do so. The IRS has clarified that if you're not required to file a tax return otherwise, you can file at any point in 2020 to claim the refund. Individuals must have a Social Security Number to claim the payment.
  • Unemployment Insurance (UI)the bill includes $250 billion in temporary enhancements to the unemployment insurance (UI) system, including a $600 increase in the weekly checks of unemployed workers through July 31, 2020; a special disaster relief program called Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) that expands UI coverage to self-employed workers, gig workers, and independent contractors; and a temporary 13-week extension of UI benefits through December 31, 2020, among other features. Young people who are working part-time, in the gig economy, or who are self-employed may be eligible for UI benefits through self-attestation.
  • Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – the bill suspends time limits for unemployed childless adults age 18-49, also called Able Bodied Adult Without Dependents (ABAWDs). Eligible young adults without children can access food and nutrition benefits regardless of their employment status unless they are offered a work activity and refuse it. States can also suspend any work requirements they impose as a condition of eligibility.
  • Paid sick days and paid family and medical leave – the bill provides up to 10 paid sick days and up to 10 weeks of paid family and medical leave for some workers with caregiving needs related to the COVID-19 outbreak. While these short-term paid benefits will help many workers, the legislation includes exclusions and exemptions that will leave out millions of workers, including individuals working for employers with more than 500 employees who are not eligible. The legislation also permits employers of health care providers and emergency responders to opt out of providing paid sick days and paid family and medical leave—and for the U.S. Department of Labor to be allowed to exempt these workers as well as workers in small businesses.

While the CARES Act is an important step, it fails to provide enough provisions to address youth and adults impacted by the juvenile justice and criminal justice system or to adequately address the child care, food and nutrition crisis families with low-incomes and immigrant families are facing. It did virtually nothing to directly address the financial and job insecurity of young people in workforce, education, and training and to support the state and local youth development and workforce programs that provide a lifeline to young people who are often not in traditional K-12 education and postsecondary education settings.

Not all young people were on spring break over the past month. Going into the crisis, young people—including Millennials and Generation Z—accounted for approximately 25 percent of jobs paying low wages, a disproportionate share of the unemployed. What's more 38 percent of young people work in the gig economy. Youth and young adults are also more likely to make minimum wage—accounting for nearly half of all workers paid the federal minimum wage or less—even though they represent only one-fifth of hourly paid workers. The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately disrupted the livelihoods and economic stability of many youth and young adults.

The economy is leaving out too many young people. A rising-tide-lifts-all-boats approach to public policy and investment does not cut it and is certainly not playing out well for the millions of would-be workers who are still locked out of the labor market and looking for jobs, along with workers jobs with low wages. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed what young people, community leaders, and advocates have known since before the Great Recession: the economic recovery that began a decade ago did not reach them. Young adults have a higher-than-average rate of poverty at 15.0 percent, with young adult parents even more likely to be poor. Young adults with children are balancing educational and economic challenges with the demanding task of parenting, often without family-supporting policies such as affordable child care, paid sick days, and paid family and medical leave.

Our country also has an unacceptable number of young people (ages 16 to 24)–4.5 million—who are not connected to school or work, also known as “Opportunity Youth” because they are seeking opportunity and they offer the nation a chance to invest in them. They are eager to work and continue their education but struggle to find jobs and programs that help them build better lives for themselves and their families. Youth disconnection impacts all regions of the country—urban, suburban, and rural. Native American and Black American teens and young adults have the highest rates of youth disconnection. Yet, Latino/Hispanic, white, and Asian youth also find themselves out of school and work and seeking pathways to opportunity.

Young people face barriers to employment that are structural and arise from systems and policies—like discrimination, segregation, unstable and low-quality jobs—not individual choices. Discriminatory hiring practices against people of color and young people can make finding work an uphill battle. That’s because your race and ethnicity greatly influence your chances of gaining employment. A persistent history of employment discrimination, along with segregation, has kept people of color, and in particular African American and Latinx people, either out of the labor market entirely, trapped in low-wage jobs, or reliant on informal economies. The impending financial downturn due to the COVID-19 crisis will only make it more difficult for youth and young adults facing structural barriers to employment to find quality jobs and careers.

Congress must include workforce and education funding and investments that targets this economically fragile population in the next stimulus package in response to the public health and economic crisis. Workforce and education investments can make a big difference in improving equity for young workers of color and those struggling to find work. Policy provisions must advance equity, focus on the economic stability and mobility of our youth, and include robust funding commensurate to the immediate and long-term workforce needs of young people.

  • Strengthen and expand federal programs. A first step would be a minimum investment of $4.1 billion in state and local workforce systems through the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) Youth activities and Adult Education formula programs and other federal Opportunity Youth focused programs such as YouthBuild, Job Corps, National Service/Americorps, and Department of Labor Reentry grants. In 2014, Congress overwhelmingly approved WIOA to modernize our workforce-development system and make it more responsive to industry. During fiscal year 2018, 81 percent of those served by WIOA youth providers were out-of-school youth, and 69 percent were employed two quarters after exit from their program. Congress should fund programs that serve Opportunity Youth at levels sufficient to reconnect one million youth each year.
  • Invest in large-scale subsidized jobs programs, including transitional jobs and summer jobs. The pandemic highlights the need for access to transitional jobs: a practical workforce strategy that uses time-limited, wage-paying jobs that combine real work, skill development, and supportive services to help participants transition successfully into the labor market. This evidence-based approach will help more young people enter the workforce, even as it helps industry sectors transition out of the pandemic stronger than before. Summer youth employment programs (SYEP) can be a critical equity investment. SYEP participants tend to come from high-poverty communities where job opportunities are few and far between. Summer jobs provide much-needed income for youth and their families. Youth report using earnings to purchase school supplies, help their families buy food, or contribute to college costs.
  • Target investments to under-resourced communities and regions of the country that have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 epidemic as well as those that have been historically under-funded and economically depressed.
  • Include accountability provisions that advance systems changes to drive equity, such as measurements for access to good jobs and careers with family-sustaining wages, health and leave benefits, as well as data transparency in reporting requirements, including outcome data disaggregation by racial, ethnic, gender, and other groups with barriers.
  • Promote improved economic security through a stronger Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). The EITC is a powerful anti-poverty tool for working families with children, which simply isn’t true for adults without dependent children. Maximize the EITC credit for childless adults, increase the phase-in rate, and expand eligibility to include more childless adults earning lower wages by broadening the eligibility age range to include young adults, ages 19-24. This strategy has enjoyed bipartisan support in the past.

A next COVID-19 federal response must also finish what the CARES Act failed to do—make investments in health and nutrition access, robust paid leave provisions for all workers, education, child care, essential criminal justice reforms, and supports for immigrants and immigrant families. For example, health access for young people requires expanded coverage for treatment, not just testing; expansion of mental health services to promote healing at a time of intense stress; ensuring access in community settings that are approachable for youth and young adults and for communities of color; and eliminating barriers to health coverage, such as bureaucratic requirements and fear.

The millennial and post-millennial generation comprise over 40 percent of the current labor force. They are the most ethnically diverse generations yet. How we will fare as a nation when this once-in-a-lifetime catastrophe is over will depend on how intentionally we invested in them.

* Lashon Amado is the Interim Project Director for Opportunity Youth United, a national grassroots movement of opportunity youth and their adult allies seeking to alleviate poverty in their community through civic engagement.