Breaking News: Many People in Prison Eventually Leave Prison

From a Seattle Times investigative piece on what appears to be a a pretty impressive prison labor scam in Washington:

While lawmakers have pushed to increase the number of inmate workers, they’ve limited the educational opportunities that could help offenders find work outside of prison.

As part of a “get tough on crime” effort, the Washington Legislature in 1995 passed a law prohibiting state money from being used for higher education in prisons. Some taxpayers had griped that inmates were getting college courses for free.

Rep. Larry Springer, a Democrat from Kirkland who serves as deputy majority leader, views the CI jobs as “basic skill” work that may only help former inmates find very low-paying jobs. The better use of tax dollars would be for higher education for higher-skilled jobs. (my emphasis)

The fact that people in prison are often serving sentences that eventually lead to release does seems to escape policymakers sometimes. I’m not sure I understand what the argument is for blocking prisoners’ access to things that are likely to decrease the likelihood that they will commit crimes again once released. But I’m all ears if you have one.

Perhaps the answer has something to do with the fact that most people leaving prison aren’t headed for the communities where those policymakers live.

The Real Problem With WIOA

I’m still confused over why the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) is already considered an abject failure because it didn’t do anything about the predatory lending practiced by institutions covered by an entirely different piece of legislation, but in the meantime, while watching this, I was pleased to see someone mention, even if somewhat obliquely (and then completely ignored by the host), the one clear aspect of WIOA (and its predecessor, the Workforce Investment Act) that really does work to the advantage of those schools that rip people off: the fact that there isn’t nearly enough funding in WIOA to provide quality training to people who are eligible for the program. If people had better options, maybe they wouldn’t be in a position to be taken advantage of by these terrible schools.

I’ve written about the completely inadequate funding levels for adult education in WIOA here. I’m not an expert by any stretch on the job training programs covered in WIOA, but I gather from what little I do know that the funding for these programs is inadequate as well. If people think that it’s the WIOA-funded one-stops that should be counseling people about higher ed student loans, then in their next breath it night be good to talk a little about whether one-stop staff capacity is sufficient—or sufficiently knowledgable—to do this, and if not, what kind of money it might take to  make that happen.

Again, I’m really interested in how workforce investment advocates might do more to stop the higher education scam artists that prey on the unemployed and unskilled, but most of the discussion over the last week or so hasn’t been very clear about the differences between higher eduction and WIOA, how they actually work together, and how they could work together better, given such a restrictive funding environment. Without such clarity, it’s hard to know which policy choices, if any, will make a difference. This is one area where your comments would be much appreciated!

Going After the Scammers

(Updated Below)

The New York Times story yesterday on the Workforce Investment Act is related to the post I published yesterday. I realize there are political and strategic challenges associated with calling out public officials when they make possibly disingenuous calls for more job training. But calling out scammers like those described in the Times should be much easier. They should not only be called out for what they are, but workforce development advocates should consider aggressive, proactive initiatives aimed at taking them down. It’s the best way to distance the good stuff from the scammers. Defensive responses—sure-these-guys-are-bad-but-look-at-all-the-good-things-that-WIA-does-and-it’s-not-my job-anyway-its’-the-states-and-being accountable-is-hard etc.—is probably not going to be good enough to stem the erosion in confidence that the presence of these outfits have on the whole system.

UPDATE 8/19/14 11:15 AM: By the way, I largely agree with my colleague Mary Alice McCarthy’s criticism of the Times article, (and would be foolish not too, as her knowledge of this subject is about as good as there is), and recommend anyone interested in the subject go read it. In particular, I think she’s right that the Times does not do nearly enough to make it clear that the student indebtedness problem has to do with problems in our higher education system, rather than WIA. And since that is the entire point of the article suggested in the headline and subheading—that WIA is leaving people in debt—that’s a pretty glaring mistake.

But I don’t think that this takes anything away from my point above. I don’t think the people scammed by Daymar College and their ilk really distinguish between our higher education system and our workforce development system, and I imagine that they would find debates about who is at fault to be something between irrelevant and irritating. They were out of work and needed help, and got screwed. In such cases the WIA system may not be at fault, but the entry point for these folks may have been WIA. I think workforce development advocates can do more than just say, ‘this is a higher education problem, not ours.’

Under both the old WIA and the new WIOA, one of the success measures for a program includes transitioning participants to postsecondary education and training. Clearly for the people profiled in the Times, that transition to postsecondary hasn’t worked out too well. So OK, not WIA’s fault. My point is that it might be a helpful for workforce proponents in general to do more to identify and do something about these terrible programs, whatever legislative authority it falls under. Of course, how to do so, I have no idea. (McCarthy suggests higher ed reformers look to the recently passed WIOA legislation as a model for higher education reform.) What do others think?

UPDATE 8/25/14: Bob Lanter, Executive Director of the California Workforce Association raises similar objections to the Times piece in this press release.

Where We Are

(Updated Below)

You can have food, but only if you train for jobs that don’t exist:

Sherry Hooper, director of Food Depot in northern New Mexico, said demand for food help is up 30 percent since 2008. Ranching, mining and tourism industries that once supported residents of the remote area have fallen on hard times, she said, and because of rural isolation, many poor families have to shop at gas stations. “They’re expecting people to seek jobs that are just not there,” she said.

A spokesman for the state human services department, Matt Kennicott, said the state wants people to be more self-sufficient but is not trying to take benefits away or save money.  Unemployed workers can keep food stamps if they can document job training, he said. “There are jobs available,” said Kennicott. “The people in the work force don’t necessarily have the skills required by those employers. We need to get those people trained.” (my emphasis)

I fear there is still too much of this kind of policy disconnect abroad in the land. Are there jobs or aren’t there? You can’t make an economic collapse go away by shouting “job training” at it. Denying food stamp benefits to people who truly cannot find jobs is terrible policy for fairly obvious reasons. But tying food stamp eligibility to participation in training is also terrible policy. It’s clearly unfair if training is not available to everyone who needs it. I have no idea if there is enough job training available in this part of New Mexico to meet the demand, although I’m willing to bet there’s not. But even if there is, it’s still terrible policy, because there will always be people who need these benefits who won’t be able to participate in job training (due to age, disability, etc.).

And training people to do jobs that don’t exist doesn’t make any sense either—again, for fairly obvious reasons. Most responsible workforce advocates understand this, but it appears to me that some policymakers think that simply saying the magic words “job training” somehow obviates the need to address poverty and unemployment in a humane and coherent fashion.

UPDATE 8/20/14: I slightly rewrote the last sentence of this post to more accurately reflect the point I was trying to make.