President Donald Trump calls his proposed budget for fiscal year 2018, “A New Foundation For American Greatness.” Alternately dubbed the “taxpayer-first budget,” the document proposes $3.6 trillion in cuts over 10 years – largely at the expense of education, health care and services that give low-income individuals and families a chance to maintain financial security – while boosting defense spending and decreasing taxes for the wealthy.
“This Budget’s defining ambition is to unleash the dreams of the American people. This requires laying a new foundation for American Greatness,” the President wrote in his letter introducing the proposal to Congress. The stated goal of Trump’s budget is to push everyone towards work – including those currently receiving disability benefits. The budget reduces or eliminates programs needed to support work when one’s job doesn’t pay a living wage, including Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program (SNAP), student loans, the Federal Work Study Program, HUD Rental Assistance and the food program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC).
In truth, Trump’s proposed budget would demolish any foundation for “American Greatness” by destroying programs that currently help hard-working Americans who can’t make ends meet because their employers don’t pay enough, or they lack the skills to compete in today’s job market. While the administration claims this budget will provide tax relief for middle-class families and reduce taxes on American businesses, it puts moneyed interests — not taxpayers — first. Examining the document closely, it’s hard to imagine how anyone – other than the wealthiest Americans – will benefit from the draconian and inhumane cuts detailed in this budget.
It is clear that last year’s presidential election was a call for a new approach. Americans are growing increasingly frustrated with stagnating wages as the cost of living rises beyond the level they can afford. Trump’s victory was a signal that many economically strained voters rejected “business-as-usual” politics of the recent past and feel their concerns were not being heard. But while President Trump aspires to “shake things up” in Washington by proposing a radical turn from the policies not just of President Barack Obama, but policies embraced by both parties for the past 50 years, Trump’s budget would severely limit the ability of Americans to adapt to the changing workforce and build financial security.
As Congress evaluates the components of the Trump budget, we at Colorado Center on Law and Policy believe that a true foundation for “American greatness” begins with policies and priorities that invest in the future of struggling Americans. To that point, we are launching a series of analyses entitled, “A Better Budget,” which will examine the importance of programs targeted for reduction or elimination under the Trump budget and outline how Congress can support policies that will strengthen – not undermine – support for vital programs that help build an inclusive, fair and just economy that reflects our American ideals and puts more Americans back to work and on a path toward self-sufficiency.
We’ll begin the series with a look at the proposed cuts to education and training programs and explain how America could support under-employed or unemployed Americans so they can secure better jobs and pull their families out of poverty.
Proposed cuts: Education and training
In unveiling “A New Foundation for American Greatness,” President Trump’s budget director Mick Mulvaney proclaimed that more Americans would be incentivized to get back to work if the government reduced or eliminated essential human services that help low-income Americans meet their basic needs.
“If you’re on food stamps and you’re able-bodied, we need you to go back to work,” Mulvaney famously stated, adding “We’re not going to measure compassion by the amount of money that we spend, but by the number of people that we help.”
Yet, Mulvaney either overlooked or ignored the fact that most able-bodied Americans who receive government assistance already work – often more than one job – and still can’t make ends meet without additional support. To find a job, or a genuine career path, many recipients of human-service programs like Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) need education and training to provide a bridge to self-sufficiency. Because these individuals and their families lack the financial means pay both for education or training and living expenses, they can be trapped into meeting basic needs with one or more dead-end jobs, leaving little time or money to advance their education. Furthermore, for the approximately 9 percent of Coloradans who lack a high school diploma, far fewer training or employment opportunities exist. Rather than supporting programs that get Americans back to work, or on a better career path, the president’s budget proposes drastic cuts to programs and services that equip people to compete in the job market.
Here are a few ways the president’s budget undermines key supports for low-income students and workers trying to get out of poverty:
* The budget slashes funding for financial aid programs that help low-income student get postsecondary education by $5.2 billion, including $3.9 billion from the Pell Grant program which defrays the high cost of tuition for low-income students. Already, the Pell Grant program covers less than 30 percent of the average cost of college attendance. More than 7.7 million students, most from families that earn less than $20,000 a year, would be affected by the cuts. Unfortunately, these proposed cuts come at a time when tuition costs are rising. Colorado students received about $450 million in federal Pell Grants in 2016.
* The budget eliminates Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (SEOG), which help cover college grants for more than 1.6 million high-need students. Nearly all SEOG grantees also receive a Pell Grant, adding insult to injury for low-income students who are already financially struggling to further their education and training. In Colorado, the program covers 15,129 people, providing $13.8 million total support with an average grant of $914.
* The budget would cut almost 40 percent of funding for the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA). Charged with providing employment, career and training services, WIOA passed Congress in 2014 with overwhelming bipartisan support. WIOA collaborates with employers to provide youth and adults with job training. Although the budget suggests that states, localities and employers use their own resources in funding these programs, there is no source for that local funding in Colorado. Total cuts from the WIOA program, including youth activities, dislocated worker employment and training, and adult education amount to more than $14.58 million in Colorado.
* The budget reduces funding for the federal Work-Study program by $488 million. This would eliminate employment opportunities for more than 300,000 low-income students working their way through college, about 25 percent of whom earn less than $12,000 annually. In Colorado, a 51 percent reduction would cut funding by $7.2 million.
*The budget cuts funding for adult education for those who lack a high school diploma by 16 percent. For Colorado, this means a cut of over $1 million, which is more than all the current state funding for adult education. Because most of these training programs require a diploma or at least 9th grade reading and math skills, many workers simply can’t advance to a better career path without adult education. Currently, the Federal Adult Education and Literacy Act provides $7 million in funding to Colorado as part of WIOA. Still, the program serves less than 2 percent of Coloradans who lack a high school diploma.
Overall, these cuts would have a devastating effect on local communities seeking to address the skill gap between prospective workers and potential employers. These cuts would diminish the ability of low-income workers, whether in rural and urban Colorado, to obtain the education and training needed to succeed on the job and in life.
Combined with proposed cuts to SNAP, Medicaid and other supports, how would low-income families prosper – let alone survive – if Trump’s cuts became reality?
Furthermore, if approved, Trump’s budget would destabilize state and local budgets across the country. If states tried to fill the holes such a budget would create, that would dig deeper holes on other critical areas of investment such as health care, K-12 education and transportation.
What Congress should do
Members of Congress should reject the president’s budget because it would increase inequality and stifle career mobility for low-income students. But we’d also encourage members of Colorado’s Congressional Delegation to pursue an alternative path that builds a solid foundation for our present and future workforce.
In November, 2016, the National Skills Coalition outlined an agenda to put millions of Americans on the pathway toward good-paying, middle-skill jobs that would build strengthen companies that need and want to hire workers to fill skilled positions.
Published just before the election, the “Skills for Good Jobs” report set a challenge for elected officials to reboot and reorient the nation’s skills investment in coordination with students, workers, regional industries, educators and service providers.
Among the recommendations:
* Form a White House Skills Cabinet based in the Office of the Vice President. The office would ensure that federal agencies are coordinating and tracking progress on industry workforce partnerships and supporting programs that lead to industry-recognized credentials for community colleges.
* Encourage new policies directed at both students/workers and businesses to support the development of 5 million new apprenticeships. Apprenticeships let workers and families support themselves while earning a license or postsecondary credential – without pursuing a traditional four-year degree and incurring substantial debt. Despite the effectiveness of apprenticeships in starting a career, there’s only one working apprentice for every 40 full-time college students. The National Skills Coalition set the goal of supporting a target of one working apprentice for every four full-time college students by 2020. The coalition also suggested promoting apprenticeships as a wage-earning learning activity to fulfill requirements for those receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). To his credit, Trump signed an executive order expanding apprenticeships and calling for $90 million to go toward apprenticeship programs. More funding is needed and we hope that future actions will establish “industry-recognized” apprenticeships that uphold the program’s current job quality and equal opportunity standards as well as a nationally recognized credential that is portable among employers within an industry; a hallmark of the current Registered Apprenticeship system.
* Build a diverse workforce to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure. As the Trump administration promises to build the nation’s roads, bridges and public transit, the country must invest in the skilled workforce needed to actually build this infrastructure. According to the National Skills Coalition, every $1 billion spent on infrastructure creates between 13,000 and 27,800 jobs. But to make this investment pay off for American families and the economy, we need a workforce equipped to meet the challenges of rebuilding our infrastructure.
In addition to the aforementioned recommendations, we encourage policymakers to support adult-education programs on a national and statewide level. While Colorado has done a better job in recent years harnessing the scant federal resources available for adult education, more funding is still needed. Without additional “on-ramps” to career pathways through adult education, too many Coloradans without high school degrees will continue struggling to turn their hard work into upward mobility.
Although we agree with the Trump budget’s premise that putting people back to work is the best way to fight poverty, the proposed cuts to education and skills training will make it harder for low-income individuals to move forward. These programs have historically enjoyed broad bipartisan support because they invest in workers and businesses. To that point, the best way to put Americans back to work is to strengthen – not weaken — public assistance programs so they provide meaningful education and training opportunities that help people get jobs and support their families and get on a career path that leads to self-sufficiency.
Ask your Congressional representatives to invest in education, training and support services that give workers a path to gainful employment while giving employers the workforce they need for the future.