As part of a broad extenders package released Friday, House Republicans have pinned their support of unemployment insurance on sweeping reforms of the program, but failed to include increased funding to support the large mandates created.
The GOP proposal would require recipients of aid who do not have high school degrees — a population disproportionately vulnerable to unemployment — to be "enrolled and making satisfactory progress in classes" toward a General Education Development certificate or equivalent. The problem is that enrolling in such classes, or even taking the exam, can be expensive, and the bill introduced Friday includes no additional funding to assist cash-strapped states or individuals who likely would flood the system.
In 2010, 11.7 percent of UI recipients — or 1.4 million people — did not have a high school diploma. Nearly 50 percent of those people were over the age of 45, according to estimates from the Current Population Survey.
The general idea, Republicans say, is a good one. The unemployment rates from November reveal a significant gap between Americans who hold a high school diploma and those who do not. The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate last month for Americans with "less than a high school diploma," according to the Bureau of Labor statistics, was 13.2 percent. Americans who have a high school degree were unemployed at a rate of 8.8 percent.
But the average cost of taking the GED is $75, though it varies by state. There is also a fee to retake the five-part test if an applicant fails any one section, and the cost of courses also differs widely. Democratic House staffers concerned about the provision when it was introduced in a bill passed by the Ways and Means Committee last spring say that they've estimated that courses cost in the $100 range nationwide.
Republicans claim they do not need to include additional funding because federal and state money is already available for those costs. But if seeking a GED becomes a requirement to get unemployment benefits, the system is likely to see a flood of new applicants for education aid.
According to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy, 90 million people have skill levels below high school completion. Currently, 2.3 million people are served by Workforce Investment Act Title II dollars and state dollars, with only a quarter of the $200 billion spent annually coming from the federal coffers, according to a Senate aide who tracks labor and education.
"From a capacity perspective, federal funding serves a quarter of all individuals currently served," the aide said. "Meeting a mandate like what the Republicans are proposing without new resources would be extremely difficult at best."
For example, Illinois appropriated $1 million for GED preparation and testing in fiscal 2012 — a level the state has maintained for the past several years. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics seasonally-adjusted data, there were 668,790 unemployed Illinois residents in October. The high school graduation rates for unemployed Illinoisians could not be made immediately available, but Roll Call calculated an estimate by applying the BLS's most recent national average to the state population. Nationwide in November, approximately 16 percent of unemployed Americans did not have their high school degrees.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.