On Friday, House Republicans released H.R. 3630, (“The Middle Class Tax Relief & Job Creation Act of 2011”), a bill that, among other things, would extend the Social Security payroll tax cut, extend unemployment insurance (UI), provide a two-year Medicare doctor reimbursement fix, and a bunch of other things. One provision in the bill appears to deny UI benefits to individuals without a high school diploma unless they are enrolled in classes that will lead to a GED or another “state-recognized equivalent.” Here is the relevant text (I’ve bolded the key language):
SEC. 2122. PARTICIPATION IN REEMPLOYMENT SERVICES MADE A CONDITION OF BENEFIT RECEIPT.
(a) SOCIAL SECURITY ACT.—Paragraph (10) of section 303(a) of the Social Security Act is amended to read as follows:
(10)(A) A requirement that, as a condition of eligibility for regular compensation for any week and in addition to State work search requirements—
(i) a claimant shall meet the minimum educational requirements set forth in subparagraph (B); and
(ii) any claimant who has been referred to reemployment services shall participate in such services.
(B) For purposes of this paragraph, an individual shall not be considered to have met the minimum educational requirements of this subparagraph unless such individual—
(i) has earned a high school diploma;
(ii) has earned the General Educational Development (GED) credential or other State-recognized equivalent (including by meeting recognized alternative standards for individuals with disabilities); or
(iii) is enrolled and making satisfactory progress in classes leading to satisfaction of clause (i) or (ii).
(C) The requirements of subparagraph (B) may be waived for an individual to the extent that the State agency charged with the administration of the State law deems such requirements to be unduly burdensome.”
I believe this provision, if passed it to law, would unjustly cut off tens of thousands of low-skilled individuals from extended UI benefits, particularly those at very low levels of literacy. (Tens of thousands seems reasonable when you take into account the double digit unemployment rate for those without a high school diploma and the fact that 15% of the country’s 200 million adults (age 25+) have not earned a high school diploma or an equivalent.)
As I understand it, this language in the bill would require any person without a diploma to be currently enrolled in an adult education class in order to retain UI eligibility, and would apparently require them to prove it (although it does not indicate how one would prove it). However, this provision fails to take into account that there are not nearly enough classes available in the U.S. right now to meet the current demand for classes. There are around 160,000 people are stuck on waiting lists for adult education services in federally-funded programs alone. Under this bill, those individuals, through no fault of their own, would be ineligible for extended UI benefits. Thus, having already denied them the opportunity for adult education, this bill would compound that injustice by also denying them extended UI benefits. It essentially punishes vulnerable, unskilled people for our unwillingness to fund adult education adequately.
Even if the resources were suddenly made available so that every one one of those adults could enroll in an adult education class tomorrow, the language is unclear as to what kind of classes qualify as “leading to satisfaction” towards a diploma or a GED. Would the person need to be enrolled in a class that is directly associated with the attainment of the credential, such as a GED class (that is, a class that is explicitly designed to prepare one to take the GED test) or would an adult literacy class for those at very low levels be acceptable? A person enrolled in an adult literacy class may be there to improve their skills so that they may take the GED at some point in the future, but those adult literacy classes are usually not specifically orientated towards preparing for the GED.
More significantly, the bill would, on the face of it, exclude those participating in other kinds of adult education, such as one-on-one tutoring, individualized distance education, or self-study. As a result, I believe it is highly likely that those at very low levels of literacy, even if they are enrolled in adult literacy programs, would be disqualified for extended UI benefits under this bill.
It’s also important to note that thousands of people study for and successfully pass the GED test every year without enrolling a program by choice. There is no requirement that you must enroll in a program to study for the GED. Nonetheless, this bill would require those without a diploma or GED to enroll in a program in order to continue receiving UI benefits, even if they believe that self-study is a more effective and efficient option.
Even for those enrolled in classes that are deemed to qualify under this bill, it is not at all clear by what is meant by “satisfactory progress” in paragraph (B) (iii), or how it is to be demonstrated. Let’s say this bill became law next week, and you are one of the minority without a high school diploma who had the good fortune to find a GED program with an open seat right away. But after participating for just a few weeks, how would you demonstrate “satisfactory progress” toward that GED? You are not going to be assessed or tested after two weeks. One might argue that just enrolling and participating could be interpreted as progress, and I might agree, but not only is that impossible to empirically demonstrate, the bill language suggests that it would not be sufficient. Enrollment and satisfactory progress must be demonstrated, and I think the most logical interpretation of that language is that they are contemplating proof of enrollment and some sort of measurable proof of progress.
Which raises the larger problem with the “satisfactory progress” language itself: it’s too vague. I don’t understand how those determining UI eligibility would be qualified or have the capacity to make such a determination. (Same goes for determining what sort of “classes” qualify.)
Finally, while paragraph (C) does allow a state to waive this requirement if it is “unduly burdensome,” it is not clear from the language whether the burden being referred to is the burden on the individual applying for benefits or on the state in administrating the provision. And, more importantly, of course, it is only an option to waive the requirement; nothing in this paragraph would require a state to make a determination of whether such a burden exists, or actually waive the requirement if it finds one.
Last night I was completely flummoxed as to why the authors of this bill would include this provision, other than abject cruelty. The denial of UI benefits under this bill will surely have a disproportionate impact people of color and the most vulnerable people in our society. Again, this provision cuts off benefits to those with the highest rates of unemployment. Perhaps it was a misguided attempt to provide an incentive to those lacking a high school diploma, but the problem for tens of thousands of Americans is not that they lack the incentive to attain a diploma, but access to educational opportunity that will allow them to do so. And, as outlined above, even for those who have managed to access these services, I think the bill, if passed, would result in a denial of benefits for these individuals as well. There is simply no good public policy outcome that would result from its passage.
The House Rules committee will meet Monday at 5 PM on the bill, which is expected to be on the House floor on Tuesday.