Obama Plan Includes Summer Jobs for Youth, Unemployment Protection for Families

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Note: This article was updated and corrected Sept. 9.

President Barack Obama laid out a job creation plan tonight that includes funding for summer jobs, partnerships between employers and community colleges, and continued unemployment insurance.

The American Jobs Act, which has an estimated price tag of $447 billion, will include funding for a summer jobs program that will employ “hundreds of thousands of disadvantaged young people.”

The summer jobs are one of three initiatives in the act's $5 billion Pathways Back to Work package. Subsidized employment opportunities for low-income youth and adults, and work-based job training programs, will also be funded out of the $5 billion. 

The act would also help employers pay to send workers to community colleges to learn new skills necessary for particular positions.

Also included in the plan is funding to rehabilitate and improve 35,000 schools and protect 280,000 teachers from being laid off, and an extension of unemployment insurance for one year. If the insurance program isn’t extended, long-term unemployed workers would lose beneifts at the end of 2011.

“Right now, today, the thing that is most critical for families is unemployment benefits for long-term unemployed, especially those with kids,” Laura Speer, associate director for policy reform and data at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, told Youth Today last month. The foundation recommended an unemployment insurance extension in its recently released Kids Count Data Book.

Obama said the bill would be paid for in part by tacking the cost of the Jobs Act onto the $1.5 trillion in spending cuts over the next 10 years mandated by the recent debt ceiling deal.

“There are some things we’ll definitely support,” said Steve DeWitt, spokesman for the Association for Career and Technical Education, including the summer jobs program and the extension of unemployment insurance.

But DeWitt also said he was “concerned” about the concept of paying for the act by adding to the planned spending cuts, much of which will come at the expense of domestic programs.

With the exception of the summer jobs program, Obama did not mention any plans to assist young workers entering the work force from high school or college. Workers between age 18 and 24 face an unemployment rate of 16.4 percent, compared with an overall unemployment rate of 9 percent.

The president made some mention of job training ventures in the speech, but made no reference to the Workforce Investment Act, which is now eight years overdue for reauthorization and at the center of the current discussion about youth employment training.

Signed into law by President Bill Clinton in 1998, it expired in 2003. An attempt at reauthorization in the mid-2000s went off the tracks because Democrats and Republicans were at odds over charitable choice, the issue of whether church recipients of WIA funds could discriminate in hiring practices based on religious affiliation.

WIA Youth Activities appropriations usually account for about 12 percent of total employment program funding. Congress funded youth activities at $924 million in 2010. The House voted to eliminate fiscal 2011 funding for the program, but the spending compromise that prevented a government shutdown included $827 million for WIA Youth Activities.

Gracey Ibarra, a recent high school graduate from Minnesota who earned her nursing assistant certification through a WIA youth program, sat in First Lady Michelle Obama’s box during the address tonight.

Youth advocates and business leaders have both urged reauthorization of WIA. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has had a position in favor of reauthorization since 2009; late last month, dozens of local chambers signed a letter to members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee pushing for it. The HELP Committee has a working draft of WIA reauthorization, although a markup of the bill has not been scheduled for this month.  

The House Education and the Workforce Committee has yet to introduce anything on WIA, although Committee Chairman John Kline (R-Minn.) and fellow Republicans Buck McKeon (Calif.) and Joe Heck (Nevada) conducted six “field hearings” around the country during the recent recess about how Congress could improve federal job training programs.

“This law is long overdue for reform,” Kline said at a field hearing in Nevada in August. “And as the [recent] GAO report makes clear, we have a lot of work ahead of us to enhance support for workers and promote better use of taxpayer dollars.”

WIA programs place “between 50 [percent] to 90 percent of its clients in employment and helps between 80 [percent] to 90 percent retain their new jobs,” the local chambers of commerce said in their letter to the Senate committee.  

But larger evaluation measures of WIA performance and other federal job training programs were questioned by a report earlier this year by the Government Accountability Office. The report found that the $18 billion in total fiscal year 2009 funding spent on employment and training programs supported “overlapping” and “duplicate” services, including many programs that do a poor job tracking their own effectiveness.

Kline issued a statement shortly after Obama’s speech that disagreed with most parts of his plan, but expressed an interest in finding common ground on training.

“I’m pleased the president recognizes we need a better trained workforce if we want to boost our country’s standing in the global marketplace,” Kline said in the statement. “Republicans remain committed to streamlining federal job training programs, improving support for workers, and promoting a better use of taxpayer money.” 

Earlier today, committee spokeswoman Alexandra Sollberger told Youth Today in an e-mail that “we hope to improve support for American workers and ensure better use of taxpayer dollars by advancing a responsible reauthorization of the Workforce Investment Act this Congress.”

Click here for a fact sheet breaking down the American Jobs Act.