The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Bad news for workforce development: It’s ‘workforce development week.’

President Trump listens during a Cabinet meeting Monday in the Cabinet Room of the White House. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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By now, no one should be surprised by the giant chasm between what President Trump says he’s doing and what he’s actually doing. This week’s chasm is brought to you by “workforce development week,” which follows last week’s chasm: “infrastructure week.” You wouldn’t be so far off if you just assumed that the policy area on which he’s focusing is an area where stuff that needs to get done won’t get done.

The administration’s play here couldn’t be simpler, and, in fact, it’s the same tactic that put Trump where he is today: Just say what you think people want to hear, and hope nobody looks behind the curtain.

So let’s do just that, i.e., look at what’s in the budget in the workforce development space.

The Trump budget would immediately cut the Labor Department’s Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act grants to states and local communities by 40 percent. As the figure below shows, these cuts come on top of hits already taken in this part of the budget since 2010. In addition, a fund that helps workers who have been displaced by natural disasters and mass layoffs would lose almost 50 percent of its funding, and money dedicated to job training for farmworkers would be eliminated entirely.

The president will likely tout apprenticeship programs, and such investments are truly worthy. Earn-while-you-learn programs have a strong track record, yet relative to other advanced economies, we underutilize this source of intensive, focused job training. According to one recent study, if the United States had the same share of apprenticeships as Germany or the United Kingdom, we’d have 2 million instead of 200,000. But, as Center on Budget and Policy Priorities senior fellow Isaac Shapiro points out, “Trump’s budget devotes only $90 million to apprenticeship programs, the same as in 2016 and 2017 and less than 5 percent of the Labor Department’s training and employment services budget.”

Then there’s education funding. The Trump budget would eliminate grants that support after-school programs for low-income students, reduce funding for career and technical education by 13 percent, and reduce funding for adult education by 16 percent. Grants and loans that help students attend college would take a hit as well. Work-study programs would be cut in half.

Wait, there’s more.

Low-income parents of young children need help paying for child care if they’re going to work or train for jobs. Today, we already provide too little in child-care assistance: only 1 in 6 children eligible for such help receive it. But, according to budget expert Sharon Parrott, the Trump budget would widen this deficit by reducing funding for the basic child-care block grant and making significant cuts to two other important funding sources states use for child care, “the annual funding for which now equals $1.7 billion, and which the budget proposes to eliminate completely.”

Conservatives often complain that “cliff effects” in anti-poverty programs disincentivize work, meaning that when increased earnings can lift you above the eligibility range for Medicaid, for example, you have an incentive to work less to keep your earnings below that cutoff point. Well, by very significantly raising the income-eligibility level for working-age adults, the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion significantly reduced that incentive. Now, Trump and congressional Republicans propose, through their repeal-and-replace health-care plan, to reinstate it by eliminating the expansion.

Those are all proposed sins of commission, but there are also sins of omission. There’s no job-inducing infrastructure plan, and the shell of the one the administration has touted is mostly a big tax cut to developers of a small subset of projects, those that spin off user fees. They won’t raise the federal minimum wage, stuck at $7.25 in the 21 states that still haven’t raised it on their own. We know that there are parts of the country that even as we close in on full employment, are still left behind, but there are no plans to either bring opportunity there, say in the form of direct job creation, or to help such families move to opportunity. They won’t fight to implement the update of the overtime rule so millions of workers can get the overtime premium pay they deserve.

I am tempted, and you may be, too, to simply tune out all the phony self-promotion but to do so would be a mistake. First, whether we’re talking about cutting work supports in the budget or the Medicaid expansion in the ACA, these are still just proposals. While Republicans are tapping a budget process that excludes Democrats, it is still possible that some of them could block the cuts. I must admit, however, that I’m increasingly convinced the “moderate Republican” is a figment of my imagination, at least in D.C. (though not in Kansas).

Even so, let’s not go gently into that good night. What these people are trying to do is shameful, and I plan to stay mad about it, which requires close monitoring of the chasms between word and deed.