Workforce Reauthorization Passes Senate, Potential Game Changer for Low-Income Youth

By Kisha Bird

On Wednesday afternoon, the Senate passed the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (H.R. 803) by a vote of 95-3.  The overwhelming bipartisan, bicameral support for the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) marks monumental progress in Congress to reauthorize the Workforce Investment Act of 1998 and improve the nation’s workforce development system.

WIOA includes a number of improvements to ensure low-income workers—youth and adults—have the skills and supports they need for full participation in the American workforce. Specifically, Title I of WIOA includes several significant provisions that will increase the focus on comprehensive programming for out-of-school youth and those who face the greatest challenges.  Included are provisions that:

  • Expand the definition of out-of-school youth to encompass young people ages 16 to 24 who are not attending school, have dropped out of school, and face extensive barriers to work and to completing their education. In addition, Title I targets 75 percent of youth funds to provide services for out-of-school youth.
  • Address cumbersome eligibility issues that can make it difficult for local areas to develop comprehensive, cross-system approaches to serve youth who are most in need. Title 1 does so by expanding the definition of low-income individuals to include those who receive or are eligible to receive free or reduced price school lunches and adding an expansive definition for individuals with a barrier to employment.  Title I also incorporates a special rule that allows young people living in high-poverty areas to be deemed eligible for services.
  • Require a minimum percentage of youth funds (20 percent) to support work experiences for low-income and vulnerable young people.

Youth and young adults continue to face obstacles to entering the workforce. The proportion of teenagers and young adults able to find jobs has declined since the 1980s, with the steepest drops occurring in the past decade and among teens. Since 1978, teen employment has fallen from 50 percent in 1978 to just 25.8 percent today. Unemployment is a major problem for young Americans in general, but it’s an even bigger problem for young people of color.  Young Black and Latino males are much less likely to be employed than their white counterparts.  WIOA would provide dedicated resources for states and local communities to address the work and education needs among young people living in highly distressed communities, which are disproportionately young people of color, and implement an array of effective employment, education, and youth development strategies.

Notwithstanding these important improvements in WIOA, the bill does not include federal incentive grant funding, which has been used during the past decade to spur state and local innovation for adults and youth.  The bill specifies definite authorization amounts for youth workforce investment activities, unlike the current Workforce Investment Act which includes “such sums as may be necessary,” a legislative term employed when an appropriation is indefinite.  There is a modest increase for youth investment activities through fiscal year 2020; however the caps placed on the appropriations levels could hinder state and local communities from being responsive to the needs of their youth population and implementing comprehensive strategies to ensure success in education and the workforce. 

The next step in the reauthorization process is for this bill to go to the House. While the timing of this is unknown, we are hopeful that the bipartisan spirit in which WIOA was crafted will prevail and the House will advance long-overdue legislation to the President, demonstrating a commitment to low-income youth and adult workers.

CLASP will continue to follow the developments of this legislation and will release a detailed analysis of its implications for low-income youth and adults pending its passage in the House.