Guaranteed Jobs: Too Big to Succeed

As the party out of power, Democrats have the luxury of thinking big as they consider how to topple President Donald Trump in 2020. Bold, ambitious ideas are what the party sorely needs if it is to capture voters’ attention and woo them from Trump’s corrosive grip.

But if Democrats are to craft a winning agenda for 2020, bigness and boldness alone are insufficient; political feasibility and substantive plausibility are also necessary ingredients. That’s why the latest big and bold idea catching the eye of potential 2020 contenders – a federal jobs guarantee – is ultimately a disappointment.

Touted by advocates as a way to achieve “permanent full employment,” the notion of a federally guaranteed job for anyone who wants one has won support from three rumored presidential hopefuls so far, including New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker. Last week, Booker revealed draft legislation3 to pilot a federal jobs guarantee program in up to 15 localities nationwide, while Sanders has floated a much more ambitious national plan4 focused on public works projects at a scale not seen since the Great Depression. Under both proposals, participants would earn wages of up to $15 an hour, along with benefits such as paid family and sick leave and health insurance. “There is great dignity in work – and in America, if you want to provide for your family, you should be able to find a full-time job that pays a fair wage,” said Booker in a press release announcing his effort.

Booker’s endorsement speaks to the inherent surface appeal of a jobs guarantee. To borrow President Bill Clinton’s famous formulation, Americans who “work hard and play by the rules” deserve a shot at self-sufficiency, and the promise of work for all who want it invokes Americans’ innate sense of fair play. Proponents also rightly point out stark disparities in employment between certain groups, the result of discrimination and other structural barriers that guaranteed access to meaningful employment could arguably remedy.

Unfortunately, the idea also suffers from a variety of fatal defects, including its size, timing and relevance and any number of practical obstacles that make it administratively unworkable as well as politically untenable. For one thing, it rests on the dubious assumption that the American electorate – at a time when public cynicism and distrust toward government remain at all-time highs6 – is ready to embrace a dramatically expanded role for the federal government as the nation’s largest staffing agency and employer. More fundamentally,
the idea betrays a deep lack of faith in the inherent resilience of the American economy and its people to weather disruption and change. Most Americans don’t share the left’s inordinate confidence in government’s ability to engineer shared prosperity from the top down. Aggressive advocacy of a panacea like government guaranteed jobs can only reinforce public impressions that progressives will always default to “big government” as the solution to complex economic problems.

Continue reading at Progressive Policy Institute.

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The Mirage of Full Employment

Low unemployment rates mask soft spots in the job market, especially among rural Americans and minorities.

For the last several months, Republicans have been resting on the laurels of positive job growth and low unemployment — proof, they say, of the Trump economy’s strength. In March, the nation’s official jobless rate stood at 4.1 percent, the lowest it’s been since the peak of the Great Recession and a level that many economists say is at or approaching “full employment.”

Certainly on paper, the labor market looks to be nearly as tight as it was during past expansions, such as during the boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s. In reality, however, the low official unemployment rate masks some serious weaknesses in the economy, including in the parts of the country that are the strongholds of Trump’s support.

Rural job growth, for example, is lackluster in comparison to that of cities. And while college graduates and the highly-skilled are in demand, minorities and lesser-skilled workers are still struggling. The share of people actually participating in the labor market is also significantly lower than in the past, including among “prime-age” adults between the ages of 25 and 54 who are the backbone of the job market. Simply put, fewer Americans are working or even looking for jobs. This means the decline in jobless rates reflects to some extent a shrinking pool of Americans looking for work.

In March, for instance, the total share of Americans participating in the workforce was more than four percentage points lower than it was in February 2000 — the last time the unemployment rate was as low as it is today. The share of prime-age adults in the workforce was also down by more than two percentage points in comparison to 2000.

The decline in workforce participation is in fact the biggest challenge that must be solved if “full employment” will ever be truly achieved. What isn’t yet clear is exactly why this decline has happened and how to fix it.

While some analyses attribute the continuing decline in workforce participation to demographic shifts, such as the retirement of Baby Boomers and extended schooling for young adults, this doesn’t explain why so many prime-age workers are missing from the strongest job market in years. A 2014 analysis by the Council of Economic Advisers concluded that demographics explains only about half of the decline in workforce participation, while as-yet-unexplained “other factors” account for much of the rest.

There are, however, some strong clues about what these “other factors” could be, such as a geographic mismatch between where new jobs are being created and where people live; workers lacking the right skills for the jobs being created; and lingering structural discrimination. These factors are, in fact, evident from an analysis of who is missing out on the benefits of the recovery:

Rural Americans

Many rural Americans, for example, are facing far less rosy job prospects than their urban counterparts. The number of non-metro jobs still hasn’t caught up to pre-recession levels and even dropped in two of the last five years.

Rural areas are moreover suffering from a double whammy of higher-than-average unemployment rates and lower workforce participation. For instance, while the official rural jobless rate stood at 5.4 percent at the end of the second quarter in 2016 (compared to 4.8 percent for metro areas), the USDA estimates that the unemployment rate would have been 7.8 percent had workforce participation rates been the same as in 2010.

Cities, in contrast, are booming, as regional inequality continues to worsen. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 313 of the nation’s 388 metro areas saw net gains in job growth over the last year. More than two dozen cities report official unemployment rates of less than 3 percent. The biggest winners are, predictably, places such as New York, Dallas and Los Angeles, each of which added 100,000 or more jobs in the last year.

Workers without higher education

Workers with the least skills are also failing to prosper in comparison to their better-educated counterparts. In March 2018, the unemployment rate among workers with a bachelor degree was just 2.2 percent, or about half the rate for workers with a high school diploma or less than a high school education. These figures, however, don’t fully convey the disparities in employment between the best- and least-educated workers.

Because the unemployment rate only includes those actively looking for jobs, a better gauge of the prevalence of work is the “employment-to-population ratio,” which also includes individuals not in the workforce. Under this measure, the inequality in work experience between highly educated and less-educated workers is much more stark.

As the following chart shows, just 44.1 percent of Americans without a high school diploma and 55.0 percent of high school graduates work, versus close to three-quarters of workers with a bachelor’s degree or better.

African American men

Another group that could and should be doing better is African-American men. In March 2018, the unemployment rate among black men was nearly double that of whites — 6.1 percent versus 3.3 percent.

Again, however, the true story is in the employment to population ratio, which shows that although both groups have seeing declining employment, lack of work is far more pervasive among African-American men and among prime-age men in particular. While 87.1 percent of prime-age white men were working in March, the equivalent figure among black prime-age men was nearly 10 percentage points lower, at 77.6 percent.


While the official numbers might say the nation is at “full employment,” there’s much more slack in the labor market than the official numbers night suggest. At the same time that some employers have begun to worry about unfilled job openings and upward pressure on wages, millions of Americans are missing out on new opportunities, either because they live in the wrong place or lack the right skills.

One potential result of this patchy recovery is a worsening of the already significant gulf between the economic haves and have-nots, especially if prosperous metro areas continue to grab the lion’s share of new jobs while vast swathes of the country lose out. These disparities in turn will only further inflame the social and political resentments now dividing the country while making it that much harder for the workers falling behind to catch up.

Although continued strong growth could eventually lift more boats, the workers most likely to benefit are the easiest to employ, with adequate access to jobs and enough basic skills to get through the door. The market alone won’t solve the mismatches in skills and geography that are acting as structural barriers to true full employment. Instead, it’s up to policymakers to make that happen.


Originally published at washingtonmonthly.com on April 13, 2018.

Innovating out of student debt

For many students, the burden of student debt lingers years after leaving college, dragging down their financesand household security. New federal data find that, 12 years after enrollment, students with debt still owed, on average, two-thirds of what they had borrowed –and as many as 27 percent had defaulted.

Colleges, however, face no equivalent long-term financial stake in their students’ education: their obligations are done once the tuition is paid and the last exam is graded. Except perhaps for the pressure to put on a good show for U.S. News

& World Report’s college rankings, schools have little incentive to ensure their students can land good jobs with decent pay – let alone graduate. Students bear the full risk of their investment and cope with the fallout if things don’t pan out as planned.

This lopsided burden of risk is one reason a dramatic expansion in financial aid – i.e., “free college” – can’t solve the crisis in college affordability. Schools would see no need to rein in their costs or to share the risks of investing in education with their students. In fact, the opposite. If the government is willing to pick up more of the tab for students, there’s no reason that tab wouldn’t simply grow – with potentially no reduction in student debt.

What’s needed instead is to break the paradigm of how higher education is financed. That means new mechanisms that both lower the cost of college for students and hold schools more accountable for how their graduates fare in the job market.

Continue reading at Progressive Policy Institute.

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Tax Cuts for the Companies That Deserve It

 U.S. companies are  on track to see dramatic reductions in their tax rates, thanks to the $1.5 trillion tax cut package passed by the GOP-led Congress and signed by President Donald Trump in late 2017.

Unfortunately, it’s far more likely that shareholders, not U.S. workers, will reap the biggest benefits from the Trump tax cuts, despite a handful of companies that have handed out “Trump bonuses” and pledged to pay their workers more.

If we really want companies to do right by their workers, we need stronger incentives. One way to do this is to establish a preferential tax rate for companies that organize themselves as “benefit corporations,” a new legal structure that allows corporations to pursue missions other than just profit.

Continue reading at Progressive Policy Institute.

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For homeless youth, statistics and reality are miles apart

Via TalkPoverty.org

At the headquarters of Covenant House Washington in Southeast D.C., a nonprofit serving youth experiencing homelessness, ten twin-sized black canvas cots fill a white-tiled alcove on the main floor. The space serves as an emergency shelter for homeless young people, which Covenant House calls “The Sanctuary.” In keeping with its name, the walls are a deep, soothing blue.

Five of the cots are for women and five for men, which is far short of the demand. The room is empty now, in mid-afternoon, but by 6:00 p.m., when the shelter opens, young people will be lining up for a chance to snag a few square feet of space for the evening, and maybe a shower and a hot meal.

“We turn away at least 8 youth per night,” says Madye Henson, Covenant House Washington’s chief executive officer.

Henson has added extra beds for hypothermia season and is planning a permanent expansion to 20 beds this year. In combination with its other programs, that would bring Covenant House’s total emergency shelter capacity to 77, making it the city’s largest provider of emergency shelter for homeless youth. But compared with the D.C. General Family Shelter for families with children, with 264 beds, Covenant House is still tiny.

The shortage of shelter beds for homeless youth is endemic across the country. Youth homelessness has been a low priority for federal funding and largely an afterthought in communities’ efforts to fight homelessness. Instead, young adults have been thrown into the system for chronically homeless adults, despite their very different needs and the dangers they face in adult shelters.

Continue reading at TalkPoverty.org

The Dialysis Machine

Via Washington Monthly

On a sunny August day, an elderly, fragile-looking black man sits slumped in a wheelchair, eyes closed, outside the doors of a DaVita Dialysis center. The business takes up the corner of a run-down strip mall in Southeast D.C., in a heavily black neighborhood across the river from the Capitol. It’s next door to a liquor store and steps away from an ACE Cash Express check-cashing outlet, a barbershop, and a takeout place. A big sign on the glass warns visitors that firearms are not allowed inside. A handicapped-accessible public bus waits in the parking lot to take other patients home.

It’s midafternoon, but the shopping center is buzzing with knots of people hanging out by the takeout and the barbershop. Everybody seems to know someone on dialysis. One man in a barber’s smock out for a cigarette break says he had a friend who died at a dialysis center. He says ambulances are a constant presence at the DaVita clinic. It’s not unusual for people to die on dialysis: nationally, about one-fourth of patients die in the first year, and six in ten will be dead within five years.

As many as thirty million Americans have chronic kidney disease. If you’re one of them, and you’re white, well educated, and middle class or higher, odds are you’ll get the kind of medical care that will save your kidneys. You likely have private health insurance and get regular checkups. You probably caught your condition early and are taking medication to slow down the disease’s progression.

But if you are poor, less educated, and black, the odds are much greater that your disease will run unchecked and your kidneys will eventually fail. According to the National Institutes of Health, black people are nearly four times as likely to suffer kidney failure as whites. Then you will likely end up on dialysis, spending three days a week, four hours at a time, at a place like this one, as your blood is pumped out of your body, filtered, and pumped back in.

Farther down the sidewalk, waiting for her daughter at the takeout, is Sharon C., a soft-spoken sixty-two-year-old black woman in a sleeveless white dress and Jackie O sunglasses who doesn’t want to give her full name. She sits in a wheelchair, her left foot and ankle grotesquely swollen, the result of poor circulation caused by the diabetes she was diagnosed with in 2005.

Sharon goes to a different DaVita center for dialysis, one near Capitol Hill, where she spends every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. “You can’t miss a treatment,” she says. “You can’t go anywhere.” She says she only got on dialysis two months earlier, when her one functioning kidney finally failed. She is not on the wait list for a transplant. “I need to find a donor,” she says, echoing what patient advocates say is a common misperception among dialysis patients: that you can’t get a transplant unless you find a donor for yourself. “I don’t want to be like this.”

The most tragic consequence of a system that incentivizes keeping people, especially poor people and minorities, on dialysis is that it also keeps them from getting what is beyond doubt the best treatment for kidney failure: a transplant.

Of the 661,000 Americans with kidney failure, about 468,000 people—more than a third of whom are black—are on dialysis. In the District of Columbia, where the prevalence of kidney failure is the highest in the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control, there are twenty-three dialysis centers, mostly in Northeast and Southeast Washington, the predominantly black parts of the city that are also ground zero for diabetes and high blood pressure, the two conditions most linked to kidney disease. Another 100 dialysis centers are within a twenty-five-mile radius of the city, again concentrated in the suburbs with the largest minority and low-income populations. In District Heights, Maryland, a DaVita center dominates the busy intersection of Pennsylvania Avenue and Silver Hill Road. In a strip mall just across the street is a clinic run by U.S. Renal Care.

Like check-cashing outlets and payday lenders, dialysis centers—the vast majority of which are for-profit, like DaVita and U.S. Renal Care—are now fixtures in the urban commercial landscape. “We used to say there’s a liquor store on every corner,” said Clive Callender, a transplant surgeon and professor of surgery at Howard University. “Now we say there’s a dialysis unit on every corner.”

The prevalence of dialysis centers in minority neighborhoods is a reflection of policy failures that encourage—indeed institutionalize—class and racial disparities in American health care. These failures include more than just disparate access to the primary and preventive services that could help high-risk patients stave off kidney disease. Public policy effectively steers low-income and minority patients with kidney disease toward dialysis and away from superior options, particularly transplants.

Everyone with kidney failure, also called end-stage renal disease, is covered by Medicare. And Medicare guarantees payment for every dialysis session. As a result, the treatment of kidney failure is a volume-centered business aimed at keeping dialysis centers running. “You fill up a facility with so many stations, you make sure somebody is sitting in each of those chairs around the clock,” said Dennis Cotter, president of the Medical Technology and Practice Patterns Institute. “It’s the Henry Ford production model.”

This system creates an incentive for clinics to keep patients on dialysis until they die.

Continued at the Washington Monthly

One of These Governors Could Save Democrats in 2020

Via the American Interest

Under a clear blue sky in late summer, with the peaks of the Gallatin Mountains as a backdrop, Montana Governor Steve Bullock mingles with guests at a private event on a ranch just outside Bozeman. Holding a plate piled high with barbecue, Bullock is half a head taller than most of the people here. He is genial and relaxed, in jeans and battered brown shoes. His nametag reads, “Governor Steve.”

A young mother brings over two little girls in flowered sundresses, and Bullock immediately drops down to eye level. A few minutes later, the girls leave with their mother, smiles on their faces, their votes no doubt locked up for 15 years hence when the girls will be old enough to cast a ballot. In half the conversations that swirl around Bullock, there are joking references to 2020 and hints about the Governor’s ambitions. It’s an open secret here that the Bullock might be running for President.

Just this past fall, Bullock won re-election over GOP challenger billionaire Greg Gianforte by four percentage points—50 percent to 46 percent—in a state where only 35 percent of voters chose Democrat Hillary Clinton for President and Donald Trump won by 20 points. That victory is Bullock’s calling card into the Democratic presidential sweepstakes, along with the prairie populist credentials he has burnished. As the state’s Attorney General, he endeared himself to sportsmen by authoring a state opinion guaranteeing access to public lands. He also took on the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, defending the state’s ban on corporate spending (he lost when the Court reaffirmed its decision).

But Bullock is not the only Democratic Governor with an eye on 2020. No fewer than five Governors (out of a field of only 15 Democratic Governors nationwide) are rumored to be or talked about as serious potential presidential contenders. Many of these, like Bullock, are governing in states that voted for Trump, or where the legislatures are controlled by Republicans, or both. And many, like Bullock, claim a pragmatic approach to policy that’s intentionally difficult to pigeonhole—by turns progressive, populist, and libertarian.

These governors join what is seemingly already a cast of thousands vying for the chance to take down Trump. In addition to liberal senatorial heavyweights Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and former Vice President Joe Biden, none of whom have (yet) officially revealed their intentions, there is a raft of younger Senators, House members, rising-star big-city Mayors, and an assortment of CEOs and celebrities, including Oprah Winfrey, Starbucks’ CEO Howard Schultz, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg (though revelations of Facebook’s pre-election ad sales to the Russians might sink that candidacy before it begins).

But of all of these, a Governor might have the best shot at actually winning. Why is that? The simple answer is that Governors are not inherently Washington swamp creatures, and that’s what the Democrats need to fracture Trump’s stubbornly loyal coalition.

Read more at The American Interest.

The Push for College Endowment Reform

Liberals and conservatives alike are taking action against inequalities in higher-education finances

Via The Atlantic and Washington Monthly

In 2015, a New York Times op-ed observed that Yale University had spent $480 million that year on fees for hedge-fund managers to grow the university’s already massive endowment—while spending just $170 million on tuition assistance and fellowships for its students.

“We’ve lost sight of the idea that students, not fund managers, should be the primary beneficiaries of a university’s endowment,” wrote the law professor Victor Fleischer, whose 2006 proposal to change the tax treatment of “carried interest” became a liberal cause célèbre. “The private-equity folks get cash; students take out loans.”

Though Fleischer’s screed was not the first to attack elite-college endowments—the progressive commentator and former Clinton administration Labor Secretary Robert Reich has also railed against them—it presaged a wave of criticism that has since become a storm. Shortly after Fleischer’s op-ed was published, the New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell grabbed the baton, launching what’s become an ongoing, high-profile crusade against fat-cat university fundraising. In 2016, he dedicated an entire podcast to the absurdity of billionaires donating millions in endowment dollars to schools that don’t need the money, and later waged a very public war against Stanford University for its fundraising appeals to alumni. “If Stanford, with $22 billion in the bank, still has needy undergraduates, how are they spending the billions they ALREADY have?” he tweeted in February.

It’s not just liberals like Gladwell who are outraged. The GOP-led Congress has held at least two separate hearings examining the taxpayer subsidies that support endowments, which are now potentially under scrutiny as part of tax reform (assuming Congress gets there). Even Donald Trump has weighed in. “Many universities spend more on private equity-fund managers than on tuition programs,” the then-presidential candidate last September, channeling Fleischer’s critique.

Observers of higher education have long known about the cash the nation’s elite schools have been accumulating, as well as the glaring inequality between these schools and their less-affluent kin. According to a 2016 analysisby the Education Trust, a nonprofit group that advocates for closing the achievement gap, 75 percent of the nation’s total college-endowment wealth was held by less than 4 percent of phenomenally wealthy schools as of 2013.

Continue reading at The Atlantic

The road to a stable job – without crippling debt

A novel grant program in Virginia is helping workers earn career-boosting occupational credentials.

Via Washington Monthly

It’s 6:45 a.m. during the height of summer construction season, and the asphalt plant at Cedar Mountain Stone Corporation in Mitchells, Virginia, has been buzzing with activity since before dawn. Thousands of pounds of crushed rock are moving along conveyor belts to be mixed with hot liquid asphalt in a gigantic drum, while trucks line up under a massive chute to take the finished asphalt away.

The company’s nearby quarry has been running 24/7, mining 8,000 tons a day of the high-quality granite for which this part of central Virginia is known. Some of this rock will end up cut and polished for people’s kitchen countertops, or lining streams and roadbeds, but much of it will end up in Cedar Mountain Stone’s asphalt plant, processed into blacktop for the thousands of miles of roads and highways that crisscross the state.

Making that asphalt is the job of Allen Miller, one of 11 apprentices at Cedar Mountain Stone. Like any good brew, good asphalt is hard to make. “We have to have certain gradations of stone, the right amount of dust, and not too much asphalt binder in it,” said Ed Dalrymple, Miller’s boss and the fourth-generation owner of Cedar Mountain Stone. “If we have all of that in the right proportions, the road’s going to last.”

Under the tutelage of a mentor at the company, Miller spends his days learning how to operate, fix and maintain the asphalt plant that is the lifeblood of the company; how to formulate asphalt so that it can withstand 20 years of freezes, thaws and the weight of thousands of tractor-trailers every day, and how to test it so that the quality of the state’s roadways passes the standards of the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT).

Under VDOT’s pay-for-performance requirements, well-built roads earn a bonus, while inferior blacktop will cost the company penalties. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are potentially at stake, which means Dalrymple is counting on Miller to do his job right. On any given day, Miller is out drilling core samples from freshly laid road beds, watching the computerized control panels monitoring the moisture levels of asphalt being mixed at the plant, or taking 20-pound samples of asphalt to the company’s on-site laboratory for analysis.

iller is 31 years old and has been at Cedar Mountain Stone for about 16 months, working from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. or later every day. In the evenings, he goes to classes at Germanna Community College in nearby Fredericksburg for specialized classes in “asphalt technology” that are part of his apprenticeship. “It makes for some very long days,” he said.

But if he sticks it out, Miller will finish his apprenticeship with a journeyman’s license in industrial maintenance; multiple certifications in “asphalt technology” from the Virginia Asphalt Association, which will help him land jobs anywhere in the industry—and four years of work experience. Though he makes just $35,000 a year as an apprentice, his salary could jump to near six figures once he finishes his training.

Best of all, Miller will have no school debt. Cedar Mountain Stone is paying for the cost of Miller’s coursework at Germanna with the help of the New Economy Workforce Credential Grant, which Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe launched in 2016 with bipartisan legislative support.  It’s the first program in the country to help pay for non-college-credit occupational credentials, says Sara Dunnigan, executive director of Virginia’s Board of Workforce Development. While other states are focused on “free college” or “free community college,” Virginia is the first to focus on free (or near-free) credentials.

Already, the state is seeing benefits. Workers like Miller are getting affordable access to industry-recognized occupational credentials that can boost their careers, while local industries are getting the trained workers they need. In the first year of the program, the program helped 2,173 Virginians earn workplace credentials.

Under the new program, which will cost $20 million over two years, the state picks up two-thirds of the cost of acquiring non-degree workplace credentials, such as the asphalt technology certifications Miller will receive, as well as commercial drivers’ licenses, IT certifications and other industry-recognized certificates, certifications and licenses from a list approved by the state. Students pay one-third of costs to ensure they have “skin in the game,” and training programs only get their grant monies if students complete their coursework and pass the licensing or other exams necessary to receive their credential.

While Miller’s apprenticeship is a multi-year commitment, many credentialing programs typically require only a few months of training and a few thousand dollars. But they can still translate into a huge boost in wages. An entry-level IT worker with CompTIA “A+” certification, for example, can expect to earn $18 to $25 an hour. Certified welders can earn as much as $62,100 a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, while the highest-paid electricians can make as much as $90,420. Many of the credentials on the state’s approved list involve so-called “middle skill” jobs, which require specialized training but no college degree. According to the National Skills Coalition, as many as 53 percent of all U.S. jobs fit into this category in 2015.

Continued at the Washington Monthly

 

Why Democrats should dump “free college”

When congressional Democrats recently rolled out a new economic policy agenda aimed at staking out a new, populist-leaning course for the Democratic Party—dubbed “A Better Deal”—one idea was conspicuously missing: free college.

As the signature idea of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, whose populist presidential campaign nearly upended the Democratic primary in 2016, “free college” would seem a natural fit for Democrats’ first post-election platform—both as a hat tip to the millions of younger progressives energized by Sanders’s candidacy, and as a rallying point in the fight against inequality. Instead, “A Better Deal” called for what some liberals consider thin gruel: more apprenticeships and employer incentives to invest in workers’ skills.

The Nation’s Katrina vanden Heuvel, for example, argues the focus on skills “does nothing to address the fundamental unfairness that plagues the economy.” Others, such as Robert Borosage, are more blunt, attacking the emphasis on skills as a “charade” that is “clearly a nod to the still potent New Democrat forces in the party.”

But the Senate Democrats’ strategy is the right move. If Democrats want to win the broadest possible support both in 2018 and beyond, “free college” is not the way to do it. In fact, a Democratic insistence on free college would guarantee the party continues to talk past a significant group of voters who don’t believe that college is the best or only path to the middle class.

“Free college” might have its share of passionate adherents, but it hasn’t been broadly popular with voters. A 2016 Gallup poll, for example, found that less than half of Americans—or just 47 percent—supported the idea of tuition-free college. It’s especially unpopular among the white working class voters who flocked to Donald Trump and whom Democrats are now working hard to court.

One reason for this lack of enthusiasm might be the price tag. Even the skimpiest of benefits would be enormously expensive in the aggregate. Sanders, who recently reintroduced his “College for All” legislation, estimates the cost of his plan, to be paid for by a new “transactions tax” on stock trades, would be $47 billion a year (and that’s assuming states pick up one-third of the tab).

 

But there are other, deeper reasons why “free college” has failed to catch fire, particularly among the white working class. A sizeable share of voters don’t believe they would benefit from free college—or that the benefits would even flow their way. Many Americans also rightly believe that you don’t need a college degree to get a decent job, even in today’s globalized economy.

Continued at the Washington Monthly