Unemployment Benefits Extension Should be Approved Friday – and Without GED or High School Diploma Requirement

Full text of the bill, now titled  “The Middle Class Tax Relief and Job Creation Act of 2012” is posted here.

It is reported that the bill will get to the floor of the House on Friday. It is expected that the Senate will also approve the bill the same day, before going on recess for a week.

In the compromise bill, unemployment benefits eligibility will not require a high school diploma or a GED, or some kind of proof that you are in a class and making progress toward one for the other. As reported, a much more limited authority to require drug tests did get in, as did a modified version of the state waiver proposal. I haven’t had a chance to study that. Hopefully someone else will offer an analysis later today.

High School Diploma, GED Requirement Apparently Dropped in Unemployment Benefits Extension Compromise

(updated below)

According to press reports, the House-Senate committee charged with coming up with a compromise measure to extend the payroll tax reduction and unemployment benefits reached a tentative agreement last night. In the deal, Republicans have apparently dropped their proposal to require unemployed workers who lack a high school diploma or GED from collecting unemployment benefits until they acquire one or the other (or are enrolled in a class to acquire one). From a New York Times story on the deal this morning:

Democrats, elated after winning the Republican tax concession after months of clashes, said they had also been able to beat back new conditions that Republicans had wanted on jobless pay, like requiring beneficiaries to seek high school equivalency degrees…

From the Boston Globe:

Republicans also were expected to drop a proposal requiring unemployed people to enroll in GED classes to obtain benefits, and a GOP proposal allowing states to employ drug tests as a condition of receiving unemployment benefits would be scrapped as well. But Republicans won a provision requiring jobless people to be more diligent in job searches as a condition of receiving benefits.

It will be interesting to look at the final conference report to see what that last sentence means.

Also, it’s not entirelly clear to me what has happened with the drug testing requirement. The Globe report above says its been dropped, but an earlier report in Roll Call quoted a Republican aide saying that the deal included language allowing states “to drug screen workers seeking a job that requires a drug test or who lost a job due to a failed drug test.”

Politico, reaffirming that the high school diploma/GED requirement has been dropped, but suggests that the deal might have an extremely watered version of the drug testing requirement:

The deal would drop language called for by Republicans allowing states to drug test potential recipients of jobless benefits and requiring the unemployed to be in a GED program if they have not finished high school. Republicans said the deal’s language on drug testing will reaffirm existing law.

Update (6:00 PM): Roll Call reported this afternoon that House Republican leaders emerged from a Conference meeting this morning “tempering expectations” that a majority of their Conference will accept the deal. Democrats were also reportedly “quick to note that a deal is not yet final.”

Meanwhile, the Washington Post‘s Greg Sargent was forwarded talking points that House Republicans have been circulating about the deal, which includes the following:

“Those receiving unemployment benefits must be searching for a job, and every state will be allowed to drug screen workers seeking a job that requires a drug test or who lost a job due to a failed drug test.”

Rep. Reed Continues to Characterize Restrictions in House UI Proposal As Giving People “Tools”

(edited slightly at 5:33 PM for for clarity)

In yesterday’s Christian Science Monitor story on the payroll tax cut and unemployment insurance (UI) extension negotiations, Rep. Reed (R-NY) is again quoted making the claim that the House’s proposal to deny unemployment benefits to those without a GED or high school diploma until they obtain one (or are at least enrolled in a class and making certain undefined progress toward such a credential) is actually providing “tools” to assist these individuals.

“Democrats are not willing to allow states the flexibility they need to give people tools to be reemployed,” says freshman Rep. Tom Reed (R) of New York. A strong advocate for these provisions, Congressman Reed says he’s now prepared to send unemployment benefits back to a 26-week level.

Again, as noted previously, there is nothing in this restriction that provides “tools” of any kind that will help people become reemployed. All the House proposal does is cut off benefits to those who are otherwise eligible but who lack a GED or High School diploma—unless they they can satisfy the vaguely-worded requirement that they are enrolled in a “class” and making “satisfactory progress” toward one of those two credentials (and only those two credentials). It doesn’t provide new funding for those classes, or any other “tools.”

Moreover the only “flexibility” provided for states in this proposal is the flexibility to opt out of the new restrictions the House wants to impose.

If you think the idea of providing more education and training opportunities to the unemployed sounds good, then the House UI proposal is not for you, because it does not actually do that. Instead, I suggest contacting your member of Congress and urging them to reauthorize the Workforce Investment Act, and to include an additional increase in funding for Title II of that act. That would result in putting actual adult education tools and resources in the hands of the unemployed—and others—seeking adult education opportunities.

Congressional UI Debate: Four Themes to Watch For

(updated below)

As the House-Senate Conference Committee renews their discussion this week on the payroll tax cut and unemployment insurance extension, here are four things I’ll be watching for regarding the proposal to ban unemployed workers without a high school diploma or GED from collecting unemployment benefits:

We Are Providing Help, Not Taking Away Benefits

As I noted yesterday, proponents have routinely suggested that their proposal is designed to provide “resources” or “tools” of some kind to help those without diplomas or GEDs attain those credentials and get back to work. However, there is no additional education or training funding in the House proposal, just a restriction that would prevent those without such credentials from receiving the benefits they have earned.

General Agreement That a GED or High School Diploma is the Only Option

During the conference committee discussion last week, both sides in the argument seemed to more-or-less agree that for those out of work and without a high school diploma, obtaining that diploma or a GED was bascially the only option available to them. But as the National Coalition for Literacy pointed out in their letter to conference committee members:

[T]he new restriction mistakenly assumes that attainment of a high-school diploma or GED is the most efficient and effective strategy towards reemployment. In fact, industry-recognized credentials and certificates may be a better pathway to a good job. Attainment of such credentials does not necessarily require a GED.

In other words, for many unemployed workers, enrollment in an industry credential program may be the most efficient and logical way to obtain the education and training they need to re-enter the workforce. Some unemployed workers without a high school diploma might, in fact, struggle with the range of academic skills needed to obtain a GED, but have sufficient skills and experience on the job to obtain such a credential. It just doesn’t make any sense to shoehorn people into just one education option.

This is actually just one example of an even more fundamental problem with what the House has proposed: it reflects a simplistic and fundamentally mistaken understanding of the range of adult education needs in this country, as well as the range of options that are required to to address each individual’s needs. As noted above, an unemployed worker may find themselves in a situation where pursuing an industry-recognized credential may be a quicker path to re-employment than obtaining a GED. Others may view the GED as their best option, but due to the lack of decent quality, available classes nearby, they choose to study on their own—not in a class. Others may have literacy skills at such a low level that they sign up for a one-on-one tutoring at a library literacy program—again, not a class, and also not direct preparation for a diploma or a GED.

The drafters of the House proposal, however, appear to be completely unaware of the range of adult education needs, credentials avaialble, and types of instruction practiced in the field. The House proposal is, instead, quite restrictive: you can only remain eligible for benefits if you are enrolled and making satisfactory progress in a class, and only a class that will lead you to the acquisition of a high school diploma or a GED, (or another high-school equivalency credential recognized by the state).

The Impact on Older Workers

From the beginning, opponents to this proposal have used the example of older workers to illustrate the unfairness of this proposal.

Robert Greenstein of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) made this point in a blog article last month:

The proposal would deny UI benefits to hundreds of thousands of workers — many of them middle-aged — who have worked hard, played by the rules, and effectively paid UI taxes for years and who then were laid off due to no fault of their own. (my emphasis)

At last week’s conference commitee meeting (thanks to the National Coalition for Literacy for the excerpts from the transcript), the older worker issue was a major part of Sen. Jack Reed’s  (D-RI) argument against the proposal:

This provision would disproportionately affect older workers. It’s been estimated that 35 percent of the UI beneficiaries without a high school education are over the age of 50. So you would have a significant number of people who have worked literally for 30 years, who might have more skills, even technical certificates and company training awards than anyone else, and then to ask them to get a GED before they can collect on their unemployment I think is a huge burden.

While I understand the argument that throwing this new requirement at older workers is particularly unfair, the proposal is really unfair to anyone at any age who has been working and effectively paying into their state’s unemployment insurance fund (employers make the contributions on their behalf)—whether it’s been 30 years or just a few. While I don’t think this is being considered, carving out an exception for older workers as a compromise would be arbitrary (how do we define older worker?) and unfair. As Timothy Noah as pointed out, “it’s unfair to impose conditions on drawing from an unemployment insurance fund that don’t exist when you’re paying into it.”

Well, OK… But There’s a Waiver!

When proponents exhaust their other arguments, I’ve noticed that they then turn to a provision in the House bill that would allow the new requirement to 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.” However, as CBPP and others have pointed out, the waiver language is extremely weak. There is no standard for determining whether such a burden exists. 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 for that individual. Most importantly, it is only an option to waive the requirement; nothing in that paragraph would require a state to make a determination of whether such a burden exists, or actually waive the requirement if it finds one.

It still seems likely to me from what I’m reading and hearing that the Senate will prevail and this provision will be tossed from the final bill, but I do think it’s worth paying attention to the waiver argument, in particular, and whether any opponents to the House proposal find this language sufficient enough to let the provision through.

UPDATE (10:40 AM): Politico and the Washington Post have both published updates this morning on the state of House-Senate conference committee negotiations. Both of which are worth reading for those interested in a big picture take on these negotiations (more is at stake than the GED/high school diploma requirement, obviously). Both articles claim that the House proposal would require recipients of unemployment benefits simply “to pursue a GED,” which is not what the House proposal actually proposes. This might seem like a picky, technical point, but it’s important in light of the second point I make above. The House proposal requires those without a high school diploma or GED to enroll themselves in a class in pursuit of one of these credentials, not merely to “pursue it.” If pursuit of a GED was sufficient, then self-studiers would presumably still qualify.

Also, the New York Times published an editorial yesterday in which they characterize the high school diploma/GED requirement as a “punitive measure designed to stigmatize the desperate.”