Conservatives have long been allergic to using government to help Americans overcome barriers to their economic advancement. Even when conservatives have done so, their proposals have tended to tilt toward getting government out of the way through deregulation or encouraging competition to government providers through vouchers. There’s much to commend these efforts, but they often aren’t enough to make a quick, tangible difference in people’s lives.
That’s what makes the recent white paper from the House Republican Study Committee’s American Worker Task Force so intriguing. The document, which contains more than 100 proposals that use government power to increase the employability and skills of American workers, may not have received much attention since it was released last month. But it’s groundbreaking on a philosophical level, and many of the specific ideas are worthy of serious consideration.
Take the approach to higher education. The Republican Study Committee rightly condemns the “Bachelor's or Bust” mentality that pervades public (and, truth be told, private) K-12 education. Too many students graduate from college with too much debt given the salary levels in the jobs they are qualified for. Just as bad, millions of students drop out of college each year and are burdened with debt they are even less able to repay. Rather than simply replay the old debate with more subsidies for traditional colleges, the report calls for using public resources to prepare students for a different career path that does not require college at all.
Two ideas are of particular interest. The report notes that the federal government spends about $1.16 billion per year to prepare students for college. Its proposal to redirect some of that money to prepare students for career and technical education that could easily send children toward a remunerative career that better suits their talents without debt. The report also calls for allowing Pell Grants to be used for non-college certificate programs and other reforms that would “level the playing field” between college and other career-training programs. It also calls for allowing schools to partner with specific employers to provide concrete education that leads to jobs with the sponsoring employer. Whether such efforts lead to an increase in people pursuing skilled manufacturing jobs or going to “coding boot camps,” this type of use of public money is likely to help people succeed.
Harnessing and deploying government power are also at the heart of the report’s labor market reforms. The report calls for dramatic expansion of government and industry apprenticeship programs that recruit and train people for jobs in skilled fields. Other proposals include allowing employers to deduct expenses incurred to increase the skills of their employees and changing how funds are disbursed under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act to encourage reducing burdensome licensing requirements and subsidizing vocational training for people with opioid addiction.
The inclusion of these and other ideas shows that conservatives are beginning to understand that helping Americans often requires public as well as private action. Most Americans rely in some part on public institutions and programs to help them navigate the vicissitudes of life. We have come to expect that government will be present to help us address problems outside of our own direct control and get us back on our feet. When conservatives treat those efforts with disdain, they cede the public sphere entirely to liberals. Too often, that results in programs that serve the needs of public officials rather than recipients, and that tend to provide too much aid in exchange for too little effort.
Donald Trump won the presidency for many reasons. One of the most important was his clear message that the government would act to help forgotten Americans whose dreams and lives were upended through no fault of their own. The Republican Study Committee’s report shows that this message is beginning to become part of conservative doctrine. That alone is reason for cheer.
Ronald J. Daniels: It’s colleges’ job to train citizens. Higher education isn’t rising to the challenge.