Proposed solutions for revitalizing working-class communities

Out of the 2016 presidential election emerged a struggling and forgotten group eager to voice their needs: working-class Americans. In response to this outcry, Opportunity America, a D.C. think tank focused on economic mobility, united a bipartisan group, cosponsored by the American Enterprise Institute and the Brookings Institution, to agree on a set of recommendations to revitalize the working-class.

Over one year, the group conducted four studies and site visits in three locations (Ohio River Valley, Louisville metro area, and southern Indiana) to determine the demographics, educational attainment, household characteristics, and reliance on government programs of the working class. The researchers identified almost sixteen million households containing such adults—individuals between twenty-five and sixty-four years old with at least a high school diploma, but less than a four-year college degree, and a household income between the national twentieth and fiftieth percentile. At the end of their research, the group negotiated which recommendations would best ameliorate some of the negative impacts affecting the working class’s income, employment, education, and family composition. The recommendations are budget neutral and designed to “do no harm” to America’s debt.

The working group concluded that career education offers a substantial opportunity for revitalizing these blue-collar communities. The changing workplace requires education beyond high school—whether it’s further schooling or some form of career training. Employers, for example, are struggling to fill positions that require qualified “middle-skill” workers, and these jobs currently comprise 35 percent of the labor market. Yet 54 percent of today’s working-class have no more than a high school diploma. Therefore, rigorous career and technical education (CTE) programs in secondary schools that give student real workplace experience can make a difference. Such programs should establish “career pathways” that combine relevant experience in high school with the opportunity to obtain or work toward the completion of industry credentials or postsecondary programs. And state and local governments should incentivize employers and community colleges to participate.

The working group also recommends that the federal government reserve more of its education spending for filling the current demand for middle-skill workers. In 2016, only 14 percent of federal education expenditures went toward that end, with significantly more spent on post-secondary initiatives, such as the Pell Grant Program. To help shift the balance, researchers suggest, among other things, eliminating 529 plans and capping graduate student loans and the American opportunity tax credit for undergraduates.

In the end, the report is a call for action, and its recommendations a mere starting point. It’s further proof that our approach to high school is broken, and that we’re sending far too many unprepared students to college, while doing very little to train young people for the jobs and careers that are available. Year after year, these positions sit unfilled, causing millions of Americans to suffer the consequences of under-employment and joblessness.

SOURCE: “Work, skills, community: Restoring opportunity for the working class,” Opportunity America (November 2018).