Small and Mid-Sized Communities Left Out of the Coronavirus Relief Fund

On March 27th, the president signed into law the third federal COVID-19 aid package: the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act (H.R. 748). This legislation is the most substantial coronavirus relief package released so far, providing the country with $2.3 trillion of aid to counter the physical and economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. One snag in this massive piece of legislation is a rule which leaves small and mid-sized communities across the country without direct access to funding.

The CARES Act created a $150 billion Coronavirus Relief Fund to provide payments to states and local governments with populations over 500,000. Each state is guaranteed a payment of at least $1.25 billion from the fund, with money provided to local governments within their borders subtracted from the total that is allocated to them. The amount made available to each state will vary based on their population, and states are not obligated to disperse these funds to localities that are not eligible under the 500,000 population minimum. The Treasury Department has provided a full breakdown of each state’s allocation.

The legislation’s language concerning the 500,000 population threshold has led to a lack of consensus on which counties, cities, localities, and “other unit[s] of general government” are eligible to receive these funds and the Treasury Department has only recently provided further clarification. Both the National Association of Counties (NACo) and the National League of Cities (NLC) have submitted separate letters to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin asking for more direct funding to local governments and clarification regarding the 500,000 rule.

Recent Clarification from the Treasury Regarding the 500,000 Rule.

Eligibility of Local Governments

According to the Treasury Department, a unit of local government eligible for receipt of direct payment includes a county, municipality, town, township, village, parish, borough, or other unit of general government below the State level with a population that exceeds 500,000. A local government must have a population in excess of 500,000 to provide a certification for payment. There is no further explicit clarification of what is and is not an “other unit of general government.”

Overlapping Jurisdictions

Some local governments, such as cities, may be entirely within the boundaries of a larger local government such as a county. The larger local government may include, for purposes of determining whether it meets the 500,000 threshold for eligibility, the population of the smaller, constituent local government.

  • If the smaller, constituent local government does not provide a certification for payment, the entire population of the larger local government (including the population of the smaller local government) will be used for purposes of calculating its payment amount.
  • If the smaller, constituent local government provides a certification for payment, the population of the smaller local government will be subtracted from the population of the larger local government for purposes of calculating its payment amount.

Listed Eligible Governments

The Treasury Department has distributed a list of 171 counties and cities/towns that have a population of more than 500,000 people according to Census data. According to the Treasury, consolidated cities and counties and city-counties may be listed twice. For example, Los Angeles County and Los Angeles city are both listed. The Treasury has not specified what happens in the event that a city and county both qualify under the 500,000 rule.  Some are concerned with double counting and its effect on the disbursement of payments. Governments eligible for payments must provide payment information and supporting documentation through the electronic form on the Treasury’s CARES Act assistance webpage. To ensure that payments are made within the 30 day period specified by the CARES Act, governments must submit completed payment materials not later than 11:59 p.m. EDT on April 17, 2020.

The Next Round of Funding Support

In response to small and medium local governments missing out on this massive funding opportunity, a group of House Democrats including U.S. House Assistant Speaker Ben Ray Luján (D-NM), Joe Neguse (D-CO), Andy Levin (D-MI), and Tom Malinowski (D-NJ) have introduced the Coronavirus Community Relief Act to provide $250 billion in stabilization funds for localities with 500,000 people or less amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. The congressmen pointed to the many towns, cities, and counties being left out of direct funding from the CARES Act, highlighting that some of these communities were in areas that had been hit hardest by COVID-19.

In addition to the bill they are proposing, Congressmembers Luján, Neguse, Levin, and Malinowski wrote a letter to Speaker Pelosi requesting that the 500,000 population cap be removed and additional funds be authorized for cities and towns in the next stimulus package from Congress. 

NARC has also weighed in on this issue, requesting that the federal government provide more funding to local governments and allow regional councils and metropolitan planning organizations with a collective population of greater than 500,000 to apply for direct funding on behalf of their member local governments. In a letter to Secretary Mnuchin, NARC expressed that many regional planning organizations are well positioned to work with the federal government to provide accountability for the expenditure of funds and to establish an equitable distribution of funds to local governments within their regions.

As authorities across the country have ordered nonessential operations and businesses to temporarily close, unemployment is skyrocketing and government revenues are expected to drop sharply compared to projected levels. Unfortunately, the CARES Act lacks sufficient funding and flexibility for states and localities to compensate for these revenue reductions. In the next funding package, federal lawmakers should deliver “unencumbered aid” for state and local governments regardless of population to ensure they have the resources needed to address the long-term health and economic concerns of their residents.

NARC will continue to track this situation and provide members with any updates or clarification from the Treasury Department.

Additional Resources

Treasury Department: A complete breakdown of eligibility can be found here.

Treasury Department: A full list of eligible counties and cities can be found here.

NLC Action Campaign to Co-sponsor the Coronavirus Community Relief Act here.

NLC/USCM CARES Act Fact Sheet here.

NLC/USCM Infographic here.

GFOA Letter to Congressional Leadership Requesting Direct Funding to Local Governments of all sizes in the next funding Package here.

Friendly Regional Competition: SEMCOG and MORPC Compete on Census Response Levels

The countdown for the 2020 Census is now reaching single digits as households begin receiving census packets in less than a week. With the clock ticking down, regional councils are making their final outreach pushes to ensure that as many residents as possible in their regions are counted. The stakes are high for the census, as each resident that is counted has a significant impact on the amount of federal dollars that their community will receive over the next ten years.

Two regional councils, Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) and Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission (MORPC) have entered a friendly competition to see which region can receive the highest percentage of Census responses. “At SEMCOG, we’re making a successful census for Southeast Michigan fun. I’ve challenged our mid-Ohio peers – those Buckeyes from the Columbus region at the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission – to see which region gets the highest percentage of responses. I issued this challenge the day after last year’s Michigan-Ohio State football game, and we really need to win this one.” said SEMCOG Executive Director, Kathleen Lomako, in a blog post on the competition.

To support a strong census response, SEMCOG has developed a Hard-to-Count Populations map and a media toolkit with materials in English, Spanish, and Arabic that can be used by the local governments in the Southeast Michigan region. The media toolkit includes a “Southeast Michigan Counts!” video which was produced by SEMCOG staff:

MORPC has also been active, chairing the government subcommittee and providing staff for other subcommittees in the Columbus and Franklin County Complete Count Committee. “MORPC has a unique role, because we have the ability to extend the work of the Columbus/Franklin County Complete Count Committee to the rest of Central Ohio,” said Aaron Schill, MORPC Director of Data & Mapping in a MORPC census post. This way we can help get every person in every corner of Central Ohio counted, including traditionally hard-to-count populations like ethnic and racial minorities, immigrants, children, and renters.”

Staff and board members of SEMCOG and MORPC pose with an Ohio State / Michigan Census banner.

Staff and board members of SEMCOG and MORPC posed for a picture at NARC’s National Conference of Regions in February. As the census gets underway, we will be looking forward to hearing the results of the competition. Regardless of who comes out on top, both regions are set to benefit from the energetic and creative effort that their regional councils are making to ensure that their communities are counted!

A Brief Update on SALT Deduction Cap Legislation

Just before leaving for their holiday recess, the House passed legislation that would suspend the $10,000 cap for state and local (SALT) tax deductions imposed by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act in 2017. The legislation, the Restoring Tax Fairness for States and Localities Act (HR 5377) would increase the cap for married, joint-filers to $20,000 for their 2019 taxes and eliminate the deduction cap entirely for 2020 and 2021.

The SALT deduction allows taxpayers to deduct the amount of state and local taxes that they have paid from their federal taxes. This allowance supports state and local authority to impose the taxes necessary to provide public services, following the longstanding U.S. system of fiscal federalism. The existing cap opens taxpayers to being taxed twice on the same income: once by states and localities and then again by the federal government.

Since removal of the deduction cap would result in reduced federal tax revenue, the House bill includes an increase to the top marginal income tax rate from 37% to 39.6%. The legislation would also reduce the dollar amount at which the increased tax rate begins. According to a Tax Foundation analysis, removing the SALT cap would reduce federal tax revenue by about $177 billion, and increasing the top individual income tax rate to 39.6 percent and widening the top bracket would raise about $162 billion. This would result in a net tax cut over 10 years, reducing federal revenue by $18.8 billion.

While this legislation has passed the House, a corresponding bill has not yet been introduced in the Senate. The tax rate increases and anticipated loss of federal tax revenue of HR 5377 are likely to create challenges to passage in the upper chamber. Additionally, the current impeachment situation can be expected to be a further impede all upcoming Senate legislative action, including a potential SALT deduction bill.

NARC will continue to follow SALT deduction legislation and will work to support solutions like HR 5377 that support local government efforts to raise the funds they need to provide public services to their communities.

Four Ways Regions Can Help Prepare for the Upcoming Census

Now that 2020 is nearly upon us, the U.S. Census Bureau has entered a critical stage of planning for the decennial census. The agency has been busy trying to hire nearly half a million temporary workers to help carry out the national headcount. A national 2020 census advertising campaign is expected to kick off in January. And census materials are continuing to be prepared and finalized to send via mail or hand-delivery to American households.

How can you help the Census Bureau prepare your region for the upcoming 2020 census? Please see the action items below:

Urge Congress to Provide Direct, Full-Year Funding for the 2020 Census

Congress is still working to finalize and pass the fiscal year (FY) 2020 federal appropriations bills. They are currently operating under the second continuing resolution (CR) of this new fiscal year, which provides funding to federal agencies through December 20, 2019. This most recent CR provided the Census Bureau a temporary spending rate of at least $6.7 billion for 2020 census as well as at least $90 million to implement a mobile Question Assistance Center program.

Although this was a much-appreciated addition to the CR, the Census Bureau needs the certainty of full-year FY 2020 appropriations now. Operating without funding certainty could force the agency to curtail or delay critical aspects of their final preparations, jeopardizing the ability of the federal government to be able to complete an accurate count. This could negatively impact the geographic distribution of $1.5 trillion in federal funding annually and long-term regional planning decisions for years to come.

NARC and its census advocacy partners urge you to call your members of Congress, especially if they serve on congressional appropriations committees or in House or Senate leadership positions, and ask them to fully fund 2020 census activities for the entire fiscal year in the third CR or in a final FY 2020 Commerce/Justice/Science appropriations measure — whichever comes first. Talking points developed by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights can be found here.

Inform and Prepare Local Elected Officials Regarding the Implementation of the Executive Order on Citizenship Data

President Donald Trump issued an executive order in July 2019 directing the Census Bureau to compile federal and, where possible, state administrative records to produce data on citizens and noncitizens. In October, the Census Bureau issued a statement asking states to voluntarily share driver’s license records as a part of these efforts. Some states, such as Maine and Illinois, have already indicated that they will not comply with the request to participate in this data sharing agreement with the Census Bureau. Several organizations have filed a legal challenge stating the action is unconstitutional.

Whether their state has indicated they will participate in this voluntary data sharing agreement, local officials should remember:

  • A citizenship question will not be on the 2020 census questionnaire.
  • All data collected by the Census Bureau (including data collected via administrative record sharing agreements) are confidential and protected under federal law. The agency is not allowed to release individual data or personal responses to anyone, for any purpose — including to other government agencies or law enforcement.
  • It is critical to remind all residents early and often to participate in the decennial census. Communities missed in the census could potentially lose out on funding, resources, and equal political representation.

Promote Census Bureau Job Recruitment

The Census Bureau is hiring in regions across the United States. The decennial census could not operate at full capacity without a large team of temporary census workers. Job opportunities include census takers, recruiting assistants, office staff, and supervisory staff. These temporary jobs are a great opportunity for your residents to earn extra income, often on a flexible working schedule, while helping ensure that everyone in the region is counted.

Regional councils are encouraged to work with community leaders, businesses, and other workforce stakeholders to get the word out on these job opportunities. If your organization serves in the administrative role for your local workforce development board, make sure you are promoting this opportunity to jobseekers participating in your various workforce programs. Those interested in applying can visit the Census Bureau’s main job recruitment page to learn more.

Review Resources Regarding the Upcoming 2020 Census

Please use the following resources for reference as we near the official 2020 census kickoff. Feel free to share with your local and regional stakeholders working to help get the word out on the upcoming nationwide headcount!

Broadband Resources for a 21st Century Nation

In 2019, having access to the internet is no longer an option. Job applications, student homework, ecommerce, small business billing, and even conversations with friends and family require access to basic internet. Unfortunately, millions of Americans still lack sufficient internet access.

Census data from 2017 indicate that 19 million households do not have a mobile or in-home internet subscription, with 16 million of those simply not having any internet access. Broadband connectivity is an issue in both urban and rural centers; however, the challenge is greatest in rural areas. According to the FCC, over 31 percent of rural Americans do not have access to broadband at home compared to four percent of urban Americans.

Despite concerningly limited national broadband coverage, municipalities, counties, and regions are making progress and overcoming barriers to implementation. Some of the many challenges of broadband deployment facing local officials include ensuring stakeholder buy-in, locating funding, and choosing the correct technology to deploy.

Regional councils have an important role to play in the strategy, development, and deployment of broadband infrastructure. No single connectivity model works for every community, but with the aid of some of the tools below, local and regional leaders continue to connect communities through broadband:

Pew Research: State Broadband Policy Explorer

The Pew Research Center has a state broadband policy explorer which provides states, localities, and regions with an easy tool to look up state laws regarding broadband access expansion. Included in the document are important chapters outlining policies and procedures to support investment and information on how to prioritize digital inclusion. Categories for searching within the tool include broadband programs, competition and regulation, definitions, funding and financing, and infrastructure access. The tool also allows searches by state, category, topic, or year. A 50-state map illustrates which states have adopted such laws. Each state code is broken down into relevant broadband criteria. The state broadband policy explorer includes state statutes related to broadband as of Jan. 1, 2019.

Next Century Cities: Becoming Broadband Ready

Next Century Cities has established a toolkit for communities and acts as a one-stop shop for strategies and solutions to connect residents. This resource is ideal for those in the first stages of seeking internet strategies and solutions to connect their residents. Throughout each chapter, several resources are linked, successful examples are provided, and Next Century Cities provides relevant suggested reading. The toolkit acts as a checklist for planning and developing a broadband deployment strategy, helping readers consider topics such as identifying goals, exploring financing options, collaborating, and measuring success.

National League of Cities (NLC): Small Cell Wireless Technology in Cities

The National League of Cities (NLC) has produced a municipal action guide, Small Cell Wireless Technology in Cities, which provides guidance on how local and regional leaders can plan for and develop small cell wireless internet deployment. In addition to the municipal action guide, NLC has also developed a model ordinance for local leaders. As the carrying capacity of cities grows, local officials are finding new and innovative ways to provide better service, more data, and connectivity for all residents.

National Telecommunications and Information Administration: BroadbandUSA

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) managed two broadband grant programs funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). However, these programs are no longer funded and NTIA is no longer accepting applications for these programs. But the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) and State Broadband Initiative (National Broadband Map) NTIA still offers many resources for local and regional officials, including Sustaining Broadband Networks: A toolkit for Local and Tribal Governments.

USDA Toolkit: e-Connectivity @ USDA: Broadband Resources for Rural America

This USDA toolkit presents resources that support e-Connectivity with the aim of helping customers navigate the agencies within USDA to find the opportunities that best fulfill their needs. USDA hopes to use grants and loans, partnerships, and in-person consultations to support a wide variety of projects and customers.

Back to School: Preparing the Next Generation of Regional Leaders

With new backpacks and school supplies in tow, students across the country are heading back to school. They probably are not thinking about the regional planning that went into creating the transportation system that brought them to school. Nor the interjurisdictional trails that connect the parks that they will use for soccer practice. No, they are probably more focused on where their classes are at than knowing where their community’s natural disaster emergency evacuation routes are located.

Some regional councils are trying to teach the next generation that even being as young as they are, they can significantly impact their communities. Just as Mara Mintzer highlighted in her TedxMileHigh talk, children should be included in local planning efforts. After all, they may help regional planners find a blind spot in how we construct our built environment that we adults have not considered. The decisions being made today will impact their tomorrow, so it is imperative that they know how to be a part of the long-range planning process that may influence their way of life 20, 30, or even 50 years from now.

Below are some examples of how members are educating young leaders about regional planning and are involving them in ongoing efforts across their communities.

Broward Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) – Think Like a Planner Program

Broward MPO has held several “Think Like a Planner” workshops in high schools across the region. During these workshops, teens get an introduction to transportation planning and potential careers in the industry. After a walk around the neighborhood surrounding Broward MPO offices, the students are tasked with coming up with ways to make the area safer for all modes of transportation. They then turn these ideas into a proposal, presenting to a three-judge panel of transportation professionals and Broward MPO Board Members. The organization has seen great success with the program and is looking forward to hosting more workshops this school year.

Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) – Future Leaders in Planning Program

For ten years, CMAP has organized Future Leaders in Planning (FLIP), a leadership development opportunity for high school students in Northeastern Illinois. Over the course of a week during the summer, the students learn about the issues that are shaping the Chicago region and come up with solutions for some of the challenges facing urban planners. Activities throughout the 5-day bootcamp include:

  • A scavenger hunt to find bus stops, LEED-certified buildings, and public art;
  • Negotiating a mock community development project;
  • Designing their own sample plan for the new Obama Foundation central plaza; and
  • Completing a final group project where they visualized the goals of CMAP’s ON TO 2050 plan across the different scales of urban planning.

Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC) – Model Atlanta Regional Commission

Bringing together 10th and 11th graders from the Atlanta metro area, ARC’s Model Atlanta Regional Commission (MARC) provides experimental learning opportunities in critical issue areas such as transportation, sustainability, and community development. Participants take part in a six-month program to learn from subject-matter experts and community leaders, engaging in thoughtful conversations about challenges the region is facing. Students are taken on field trips and visits to various community partners to receive hands-on learning about the efforts of different stakeholders throughout their region. They also develop leadership, communication, and collaboration skills by creating actionable solutions to current regional issues. After participating in MARC, students have expressed a better understanding of the considerations that go into the different issue areas that ARC regional planners have to think about, as well as how their entire 10-county region is interconnected.       

How Can Regional Councils Help Increase Affordable Housing?

A March 2018 report from the National Low Income Housing Coalition found that the U.S. has a shortfall of more than 7.2 million affordable and available rental homes for low-income households. Despite government attempts bridge the gap, three out of four low income households in need of housing assistance are denied federal help with their housing, primarily due to chronic underfunding.

As housing affordability has developed into a national crisis, communities have been looking for more ways to become more actively engaged in increasing affordable housing options for low and moderate-income individuals and families. Many communities have already implemented solutions including rent control, inclusionary housing, tax incentives and trust funds, but more efforts are needed.

Housing is a regional issue and regional coordination, information sharing, and funding generation can make a large impact, particularly in metropolitan areas.

Here are a few examples of the activities and programs that regional councils are carrying out across the US to help tackle the impacts of the affordable housing crisis in their regions.

Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG)

MWCOG plays a variety of roles in the Washington D.C. region, working with local governments on plans for residential growth. In September 2018, MWCOG identified a long-term goal of creating 100,000 additional homes in the region by 2045. Some of their recent activities to further this goal include:

  • Partnering with Urban Institute to conduct a research study entitled Housing Security in the Washington Region. This study was influential for local government officials and the community by outlining critical gaps in the region’s affordable housing for a wide range of household incomes. It also outlines specific housing policies and programs which are funded by local governments and philanthropic support. Much of their research is also being shared to community members and government officials through forums and conferences.
  • MWCOG is targeting housing preservation alongside production. They have been working with the Nonprofit Roundtable of Greater Washington to create the Capital Area Foreclosure Network (CAFN), which was designed to combat the region’s foreclosure crisis. The network provides grants and technical assistance, while counseling and organizing stakeholders, non-profits, banks and state agencies as they work towards solutions.

Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP)

In CMAP’s GO TO 2040 and ON TO 2050 long-term regional plans, they have outlined goals and steps to sustain and rebuild their region’s infrastructure. Their priorities include affordable housing and inclusionary housing to create more opportunities throughout every community. One of the specific goals of the GO TO 2040 plan is to increase housing options by lowering prices, which is being tackled by their Regional Housing Initiative (RHI). With RHI, CMAP has partnered with various groups to increase collaboration between organizations such as the Metropolitan Planning Council (MPC), Illinois Housing Development Authority (IHDA), and ten housing authorities in the region. Their objective is to support affordable and mixed-income housing developments in opportunity zone areas that they have found to be the most in need.

Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC)

ARC has taken an innovative approach toward finding solutions for affordable housing via social media. By joining Enterprise Community Partner’s 100 Great Ideas Facebook Campaign as part of the host committee and one of the event’s moderators, they were able to virtually unite residents within the Atlanta Metro Region for five days of brainstorming and exchanging ideas that could improve housing affordability. The forum was open to anyone in the region to participate and generated over 3,400 posts, comments and reactions. ARC is currently working with Enterprise Community Partners and the other local agencies involved in the campaign to synthesize ideas into a final report that can be presented to local officials for implementation.

Greater Portland Council of Governments (GPCOG)

Being the fastest growing region in their state, GPCOG provides a wide range of planning services for affordable housing, including comprehensive planning, neighborhood master planning, ordinance development, workshop facilitation and advocacy. They act as a resource to other governing agencies as they help communities assess their needs and develop a personalized plan for the future. A recent example of this work includes the South Portland West End Neighborhood Master Plan, which looks at how South Portland’s West End neighborhood can preserve housing affordability for current and future residents as demand rises in the region.

Pioneer Valley Planning Commission (PVPC)

PVPC assists its region by helping members identify and plan ways to meet their current and future housing needs. Their team helps people create Housing Production Plans and Housing Needs Assessments and Action Plans that are compliant with the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development guidelines. They are also the convener for the Pioneer Valley Regional Housing Committee, bringing together regional stakeholders on a quarterly basis to discuss housing successes and challenges and work towards achieving the goals outlined in PVPC’s Pioneer Valley Regional Housing Plan.

The Cost of the Citizenship Question

As the debate over adding the citizenship question to the 2020 census rages on, concerns over the effects of an undercount remain. According to a study by the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, including the citizenship question, which would specifically ask participants about their citizenship status and birthplace, would lead to an undercount of 6 million Hispanics, or about 12 percent of the U.S. Hispanic population.

The Washington Post worked with those who produced the Harvard study to estimate where the citizenship question would have the greatest impact. California and Texas would be the most impacted states, with undercounting of 1.84 million and 1.15 million Hispanics, respectively. Florida (601,803 undercounted) and New York (454,095 undercounted) would be close to follow. Undercounting the Hispanic population would have economic effects and impact congressional representation.

An undercount of six million Hispanics could dramatically change the makeup of congressional districts in several states. Under the estimated undercount scenario discussed above:

  • California would be projected to lose 2 congressional seats;
  • Arizona would lose its projected gain of one seat;
  • Montana could gain an additional seat; and
  • Alabama, Minnesota, and Ohio could avoid their projected loss of a seat.

The potential economic impacts of adding the citizenship question are substantial. Lower Hispanic response rates related to citizenship will drive up the cost of doing the census, as the U.S. Census Bureau will make multiple attempts at a series of follow-up contacts and in-person interviews to reach this population.

Hundreds of billions of dollars in census supported federal programs are also at risk of being misappropriated. Half of the nation’s largest federal programs are calculated using state or regional per-capita income to allocate funds. An undercount will not change the amount of funds, rather the distribution of funds will be allocated incorrectly. One particularly vulnerable program is Medicaid. In Texas, an undercount could cost the state an estimated $378 million in annual Medicaid funds, whereas Illinois would gain over $9 million in annual Medicaid funds. California would see significant reductions in WIC funds, estimated at $10.6 million annually.

Census data is arguably the most powerful tool for local, state, and regional governments to make accurate decisions affecting budgeting, disaster response, land-use and transportation planning, measuring environmental and economic impacts, and more. So, the question remains, can the United States withstand a decade of inaccurate population data?

Many state and local governments have voiced serious concern over the inclusion of a citizenship question and subsequent undercount. Regional councils are encouraged to reach out to their members of Congress and share how undercounting could impact their region for the next ten years. Regional councils are also encouraged to continue educating their constituents virtually and in person (though Complete Count Committee meetings and outreach, public service announcements, social media, etc.) on why it is important that they participate in the upcoming 2020 census.

The Argument for Regionally Based Job Training Programs

Prior to passage of the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) in 1973, job training programs were largely federally operated.  Moreover, they were very fragmented and there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to the way the programs were organized.  CETA changed all that. Though it remained federally funded, all funds were passed through to states and localities, and for the first time the job training system was locally operated through a system of “prime sponsors” – units of general purpose government such as cities or counties.

President Richard Nixon underscored this point when he signed CETA into law.  He said,  

“For the first time, [funds will] be made available to State and local governments without any Federal strings as to what kind of services or how much of those services should be provided. From now on, State and local governments will be the decision makers concerning the mix of manpower services, which they make available.”

Over the next 40 years, the nation’s job training system was transformed from one that began as city- or county-based to one that required a regional response to the workforce needs of business, industry, and workers.[1]

This transformation was not always without controversy.  States sought to control the program and deliver services statewide, and individual cities and counties sought to maintain their control over the funds and the program. Yet time and time again policymakers decided that America’s federally funded job training system should be delivered locally through a system of regionally based workforce programs that were multi-jurisdictional and reflected labor markets, economic development areas, and regional economies.

Why?  Regions, rather than individual cities or counties, are more likely to reflect the true labor market of an area.  Workers of course will cross governmental boundaries to get to work, employers will draw upon workers from a wide area and not just the municipality or county in which they are located, and wage rates are likely to be similar across these areas, thereby ensuring that individual workers would consider a variety of locations for work. 

Regions, rather than individual cities or counties, are more likely to be able to generate successful economic development strategies.  The many jurisdictions within a region are better able to develop effective land use and tax policies, make better use of the human capital throughout the region, and generate business and industrial development and jobs.

With passage of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act in 2014, policymakers finally made it clear that workforce development and job training programs must be regionally based. 

The law states that each state when drawing up its workforce development areas shall develop planning regions that consist of labor market areas, economic development regions, and other “contiguous sub-areas” of the states.  And as part of the identification process, the state will use the following regional criteria:

What began as a single city- or county-based job training system some 45 years ago has morphed into a robust, multi-jurisdictional job training system that reflects how and why economies emerge. Going beyond governmental boundaries, this system provides workforce development based on labor markets, economic development areas, local economies, industrial composition, labor force conditions and participation, and much more. 

[1] The Job Training Partnership Act (JTPA) in 1983, the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) in 1988, and the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) in 2014 succeeded CETA. 

The Importance of a Federally-funded Job Training System

Workforce development programs – whether the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, the Job Training Partnership Act, the Workforce Investment Act or the current Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act – have a long history in this nation, and have always had bipartisan support.

The problem is that at a time of very low unemployment, the need for an effective and well-funded federal job training system may be greatest.  

More recently, however, budget constraints at the federal level have kept funding for workforce development programs well below what most job training experts believe is necessary, and historically low unemployment rates have been used as an excuse to recommend that workforce development funding be cut each fiscal year.

The problem is that at a time of very low unemployment, the need for an effective and well-funded federal job training system may be greatest.  

Here’s why.  

First, the federal government is the most effective distributor of funding for programs like the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA). Every state and every workforce development area is assured of receiving funds that reflect the numbers of unemployed adults, dislocated workers, and youth in need of job training assistance. Left to be funded by the states or localities, there is a significant chance that the funding of these programs will be less likely, and even if states choose to fund the program, the funding will prove irregular at best with some states making substantial investments while others may make no investments at all.

Second, while unemployment is at record lows, underemployment is at record highs:

  • Approximately 21 million or 14 percent of all working Americans are at a job for which they are overqualified.
  • An estimated 4.5 million or three percent of all Americans are working part-time but would prefer to work full-time.
  • Eighteen million, or 12 percent, of all Americans are working two or more jobs in order to make ends meet.

Third, the workplace and the nature of work are evolving rapidly. In the last few years we have seen a substantial increase in the use of robotics, artificial intelligence, and autonomous systems.  More progress has been made in the past five to eight years than in all the previous 50 years and the changes that are occurring today are very different than the automation cycles that occurred in the 1950s, 1980s, and 1990s. During those cycles the perception was that we were automating mechanical, clerical and routine work, and that automation in those cycles was designed to help workers be more productive and to reduce some of the hard physical labor often required in manufacturing, construction and related types of jobs.

The fact is that our nation suffers from a skills shortage.

Today, however, the machines we are building seem capable of doing wholly new things. They appear to have their own cognitive and knowledge skills, and are capable of machine learning.

The fact is that our nation suffers from a skills shortage. Yes, we have more college graduates than ever. Yes, we have more community college graduates than ever. But all too often, key industries in our country are unable to find enough sufficiently trained workers to perform the jobs they have because there is a mismatch between the skills workers have and the skills employers need. And this gap is likely to grow over time unless we make the right kinds of investments in workforce training that address the problem.

According to the National Skills Coalition, we can close this gap by “adopting policies that support sector partnerships and career pathways, and by making job-driven investments [and using] data to better align workforce and education investments with employer skill needs.”

To that end, a workforce development system that is funded at the federal level to meet these needs can help address this ongoing problem, and ultimately remedy it.  

Next week:  Why a Regional Job Training System Makes the Most Sense