We Need a New Approach to Recovery From the New Administration and Congress
Almost a year after the COVID-19 pandemic began wreaking havoc on public health and the U.S. economy, it is painfully clear that our nation continues to struggle. Now it’s up to newly inaugurated President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and Congress to take substantive and strategic action to forge an equitable recovery for all Americans.
Even before taking the oath of office, President Biden announced plans for a $1.9 trillion COVID recovery package called the American Rescue Plan. And many of the executive actions he enacted during his first week as president prioritized COVID-related health care and economic concerns, as well as issues of racial equity and justice.
But while these short-term steps are essential, it’s important to remember that a path to long-term recovery requires comprehensive legislative action. The White House must work closely with the newly sworn-in Congress to craft bipartisan and long-lasting solutions.
As our federal policymakers get to work, JFF urges them to seize this opportunity to fix systems and policies that were broken well before the novel coronavirus arrived by focusing on these three critical goals in 2021:
- Help people rebound and advance
- Revitalize regional economies
- Redesign education and workforce development systems
What Must Be Done This Year
Help People Rebound and Advance
At this time, when an ever-increasing number of families are facing financial uncertainty, federal policymakers need to focus on the unique needs of the American people. To ensure that individuals across the country rebound and advance, federal programs must prioritize high-quality education and training opportunities while also providing other assistance—income supports, food assistance, safe housing, and child care—that make it possible for people to take part in skill development programs and make successful and lasting transitions to employment.
The five pandemic relief packages passed in 2020 did include some stopgap provisions to help people overcome the barriers they face. Measures included an expansion of benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), an increase in unemployment insurance, income assistance for individuals earning up to $75,000 a year (with lower levels of aid for those who earn more than that), and increased resources for families in need of child care.
While supports like those can play a critical role in enabling people to survive crises, the policies that make them possible can deliver longer-term benefits by encouraging equitable outcomes in the labor market. Federal policymakers should build on this momentum and devise new policies that will transform practice for years to come. They should provide supports that help people overcome barriers that discourage participation in education and training programs, and they should eliminate conflicting eligibility and performance requirements by issuing an interagency directive to increase coordination across federal policy initiatives. These changes would create stronger financial and social supports that seamlessly integrate education, workforce development, and human and social services that lead to greater individual success and advancement.
Revitalize Regional Economies
People from historically underserved communities are most at risk of experiencing negative effects from the health and economic crises. While President Biden has acknowledged this and has signed executive orders to help mitigate that type of impact, JFF urges federal leaders to enact policies that directly benefit those communities by focusing on place-based approaches that make the most of the unique assets of regional economies. We also call on policymakers to develop programs that invest in local businesses and talent and also align regional education and workforce systems to close skill gaps and expand opportunities for underserved and underrepresented populations.
In 2020, federal policymakers provided state and local leaders with increased resources—and increased flexibility to use those resources—through the CARES Act and the most recent stimulus package. Funds were primarily invested into communities to support local governments, health care systems, and small businesses, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Investment in technology and broadband expansion was also common, demonstrating that there is an increased need for a strong IT infrastructure to enable regional authorities to keep pace with economic shifts.
Federal policy must continue to commit to regional economic development to create essential infrastructure and support businesses so local talent can succeed and thrive. This means providing more targeted resources for job-generating initiatives, increasing incentives to attract new employers to overlooked geographic areas, and providing local systems and leaders with the flexibility to establish new and innovative service delivery options that reach more people.
Redesign Education and Workforce Development Systems
More than 40 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits since March. While some of those people have returned to work, many others have not—and some of those who resumed their jobs are now being furloughed again. In addition, students are struggling, with many facing financial instability and other barriers, causing enrollment to decline across higher education and negatively impacting student persistence and completion rates. These effects of the pandemic have accelerated trends in postsecondary education and training, with many more people—adults and young people alike—losing interest in traditional degree programs and seeking short-term, more affordable postsecondary experiences that are closely aligned with employment opportunities.
Federal policymakers must acknowledge these shifts and scale innovative and evidence-based strategies that meet the rapidly changing needs of today’s students, jobseekers, and workers—and, of course, our economy as a whole. This means investing in innovative cutting-edge solutions to long-term workforce challenges, focusing on providing skill development opportunities such as apprenticeships that lead to sought-after credentials and help people advance in education and careers, and offering reemployment assistance that helps people get back to work quickly.
These policy priorities are more important now than ever before, to ensure that people, businesses, and communities rebound and advance—and to ensure that our nation becomes whole.
However, along with transforming service delivery, to ensure that all individuals in need have access to these opportunities and services, federal policymakers must finally adequately fund the nation’s workforce development system. JFF celebrates the long-overdue changes to the Higher Education Act included in the December stimulus package, notably the expansion of Pell Grants to reach 500,000 new recipients, including people in correctional facilities. We would like to see this momentum continue with the passage of the JOBS Act, the ACCESS to Careers Act, and the 21st Century SKILLS Act, which would collectively expand Pell Grants to cover high-quality short-term credentials, provide community colleges with the resources necessary to address the evolving demands of the labor market, and update the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act to address the systemic underfunding of job training. We urge Congress to reintroduce and pass these bills, which have bipartisan support.
As we put 2020 behind us and welcome our 46th president and the 117th Congress, it is clear that we still face a long road to recovery. JFF hopes that the Biden Administration and the new Congress continue to take action and work together in 2021 to implement additional stimulus and recovery measures while also prioritizing comprehensive legislative updates to address the nation’s longstanding challenges. These policy priorities are more important now than ever before, to ensure that people, businesses, and communities rebound and advance—and to ensure that our nation becomes whole.