Equipping American Workers and Families to Thrive

COMMENTARY Jobs and Labor

Equipping American Workers and Families to Thrive

Sep 28, 2020 5 min read

Commentary By

Lindsey M. Burke, PhD @lindseymburke

Director, Center for Education Policy

Marie Fishpaw

Former Visiting Fellow, Domestic Policy

Rachel Greszler

Senior Research Fellow, Roe Institute

These reforms would give American workers tools they need to thrive. eli_asenova/Getty Images

Key Takeaways

Workers need flexibility to balance work with family obligations.

Taxpayers fund 89 federal welfare programs at a cost of $1.1 trillion a year to help their fellow Americans when times get tough. 

Congress should carefully consider the ideas in the RSC’s report—they’d be a strong step in the right direction.

America has long been a land of opportunity, one in which people can find work that enables them to earn a living, find fulfillment, and provide for their families. Over the decades, however, this dynamic has been weakened by an accumulation of government programs and regulations.

A new report by the Republican Study Committee proposes strong steps to help reverse that problem—removing a wide range of government barriers that hold back workers and those preparing to work.  Taken together, these reforms would give American workers tools they need to thrive.

Flexibility. A traditional, 9 to 5 job reporting to a boss is not for everybody. In fact, one out of three workers in the U.S. participated in freelance, or independent, work in 2019.  Nearly half (46 percent) of the 57 million Americans who freelanced said they were unable to work for a traditional employer because of factors such as their health and family circumstances. The RSC’s report—including provisions such as the New GIG Act—endorses protecting these workers’ rights to earn a living on their own terms.

Workers need flexibility to balance work with family obligations. The RSC report would help lower-wage earners gain access to paid family leave by allowing them to choose between paid time off and pay when they work overtime hours. And it supports the provision of more accessible childcare options so that families can find the care they need, from the provider they want, at a cost they can afford.

Flexibility for employers to manage their businesses and workers to live their lives is also important.  Policies such as the Employee Bonus Protection Act and enacting Universal Savings Accounts would help increase incomes and give workers a simple, tax-advantaged way to set aside savings for whatever purpose they desire.

Worker Associations. The RSC’s proposals also would help shift the role of unions’ back to representing individual workers.  It creates a fairer, more accountable, and transparent unionization process, and provides alternative, choice-based labor organization options for workers who do not want to be part of a traditional union. 

A Safety Net That Supports Workers. Taxpayers fund 89 federal welfare programs at a cost of $1.1 trillion a year to help their fellow Americans when times get tough. It’s important that those programs support workers as they try to find work, not hold them back.

A major example of where things have gone wrong: Social Security’s Disability Insurance Program. Plagued with misuse and abuse, its massive inefficiencies drive up costs and ill-serve those with disabilities. For example: half of all disability insurance benefits are granted based in part on non-medical factors such as workers’ age, experience, and education. 

Even more tragically, fewer than three percent of individuals awarded benefits ever leave the program to return to work. The RSC proposals would increase the incentives to help workers recover by expanding private disability insurance and encouraging employers to help support workers’ recoveries.

The RSC’s recommended reforms would transform the program into one that more properly assesses disability claims, focuses benefits on preventing poverty rather than replacing income, and assures the preservation of benefits for those who truly need them.  And it would help disabled Americans who want to work, to work again.   These changes are important because evolving labor conditions, improved treatments, and technological advancements allow many individuals with disabilities to live independent, productive, and rewarding lives, but the current SSDI program fails to recognize or support this reality.

The Heritage Foundation estimates that by transforming the disability insurance system into a more effective, compassionate, and responsible program, the RSC proposal would reduce the program’s costs by more than half.

Education to Equip Tomorrow’s Workers. The RSC proposals take a broad view of equipping students to find jobs that can help support them and their families. Their recommendations would move education dollars and decision-making back into the hands of students and families.  This is a welcome course correction a half-century after President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the various components of his “War on Poverty,” which established federal involvement in everything from preschool through graduate school.

The taskforce recommendations take a sober approach to future federal involvement in education—starting with a hard look at what’s not working. After 60 years, the federal day care program known as Head Start remains unsuccessful at improving long-term learning and health outcomes for its young participants, and is rife with fraud and abuse. In the K-12 realm, trillions in federal taxpayer dollars have failed to narrow the gap in education performance between children from low-income families and more affluent families. And after the ill-advised federal entry into the student loan business, college costs are higher today than at any other point in history, and the proportion of recent college graduates coming from the bottom quartile of the earnings distribution is now smaller than it was in the mid-twentieth century.

More than 30 recommendations in education policy would equip parents to get their kids the education they need to succeed. Parents would be able to send their young children to pre-school providers of their own choice, because Head Start dollars would be portable, rather than relegated to underperforming Head Start centers. For K-12 students, the taskforce recommends enacting the policies in the Academic Partnerships Lead Us to Success (APLUS) proposal, a long-held conservative goal for restoring state and local control of education. And parents could get access to existing federal funding for K-12 education to fund their children’s education directly through education savings accounts – a reform that’s become more pressing in the wake of the pandemic.

The recommendations also address the core of what ails higher education: cutting off the open spigot of federal subsidies, allowing space for innovative options like income share agreements to flourish and for private lending to reemerge. The taskforce plan would eliminate the Parent PLUS loan (which drives family-level debt) and the Grad PLUS loan (which drives overall increases in tuition while providing taxpayer support for superfluous graduate degrees). And importantly, it would place caps on borrowing while eliminating loan forgiveness. These efforts would reduce costs, limit student debt, and reduce taxpayer exposure to outstanding student loan debt, currently standing at $1.6 trillion.

Finally, the RSC recognizes that a four-year college degree is not the only way for workers to gain the education and experience needed for a successful career. Thus, it promotes apprenticeships and alternative experiences. Particulars include: providing more flexibility in the Pell grant program to pay for short-term courses, giving industry a voice on accreditation boards, and codifying federal hiring procedures to focus on skills rather than degree credentials. This all supports the idea that there is more than one way to climb the ladder of upward economic mobility in America.

American workers deserve policies that support their efforts to provide for themselves and their families. It’s high time the government got out of their way and allowed them to do so. Congress should carefully consider the ideas in the RSC’s report—they’d be a strong step in the right direction.

This piece originally appeared in RealClear Health