Congress Ponders Adding GED Requirement to Unemployment Benefits

Congress is considering making unemployment benefits contingent on a high-school diploma or GED.

Rogelio V. Solis

We can all agree that it’d be great if every adult in America possessed a high-school degree or at least a GED equivalent.

But to deny unemployment benefits to those who didn’t finish high school?

It seems a crazy idea, yet that’s precisely what might happen, depending on negotiations between the House and Senate as the two sides work to decide, by month’s end, whether to extend both unemployment insurance to cover people out of work for up to 99 weeks and also a 2 percent cut in the payroll tax. As it stands now, the House version of the extension bill includes a provision that would deny unemployment benefits to any person without a high-school diploma or a GED unless they can prove that they are enrolled in a high-school equivalency program.

The high-school requirement idea was first included in legislation the House passed at the end of last year, during the partisan showdown with the Senate over the president’s proposed payroll tax cut. Sure, they’d extend both the payroll-tax cut and supplemental unemployment benefits through the end of 2012—but it would require construction of the Canada-to-Texas Keystone Pipeline and also a raft of other proposals that the House knew would be an anathema to the Democrats.

The requirement that unemployment recipients at least be working toward a high school degree was part of that package, as was a provision requiring mandatory drug testing for all those applying for unemployment.

Anyone hoping the high school requirement was nothing but mischief-making to force the Democrats to reject their offering of an ostensible bipartisan compromise learned otherwise last week during one of the conference committee meetings held to hammer out competing versions of the Temporary Payroll Tax Cut Continuation Act of 2011.  The education provision was a key point of contention during the hearing, leading advocates to worry that it might end up as part of the final package.

“We hope it doesn’t end up in the final bill but we do think it’s a serious proposal,” says Elizabeth Lower-Basch, a senior policy analyst with the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), a D.C.-based research and advocacy group.

Congressman Tom Reed, a recently elected Republican from New York, certainly sees merit to the idea. People without jobs have time on their hands. So why not “try to give them the tools to rearm to be reemployed?” Reed asked during last week’s conference committee meeting. After all, Reed said, a GED both “enhances” people’s lives and “enhances their ability to get a job on down the road.”

Even those who see this notion of tying unemployment insurance to one’s educational level borders on lunacy allows that there’s something to be said for giving people an incentive to pick up a GED. Economists disagree about the financial worth of a GED, but there’s no doubting it’s usually a requirement for anyone wishing to enroll in a vocational programs.

Yet it seems particularly cruel to add an education requirement to unemployment given that those without a high-school degree have been especially hit hard by the recession. In December, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that those 25 years or older without a high-school diploma were more than three times as likely to be unemployed as those without a college degree.

“Everyone is in favor of education,” says CLASP’s Lower-Basch. “But this is the stick instead of the carrot. And it’s the stick when people are already running as fast as they can.”

That stick would no doubt spur many to enroll in a GED class. Except as is there aren’t nearly enough slots to accommodate all those seeking a GED. And given state and federal cutbacks, the problem is only getting worse. A 2010 study by the National Council of State Directors of Adult Education showed that virtually every state has a waiting list and that waiting times have nearly doubled since their last survey two years earlier. In New York City, because people can wait between one or two years for a class, some programs have resorted to a lottery system to reward the lucky.

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Another problem: the law treats everyone the same, no matter what their circumstance. A GED would make sense for the 17-year-old who dropped out of school and found himself laid off after a year on the job. But what about a skilled carpenter who had no problem finding work in a decent economy, despite no high-school degree? Or the 63-year-old auto worker a few years from retiring who didn’t need a high-school degree when he started at the plant 40 years ago? It’s not clear what getting a GED would do for that person.

The bill, as written, seems to give state agencies the right to issue waivers in cases where the requirement is deemed burdensome. A state, for instance, might say they’ll give a break to someone only a year or two from retirement. “The way it’s written, states can give one-off, individual exemptions as opposed to a blanket exemption,” Lower-Basch says.

“But we’re not sure all states would offer these kind of exemptions,” she says. “And it creates another bureaucratic hurdle. People would have to figure out how to apply for an exemption and a state would need to make a decision at a time we know that many states feel the burden of getting the checks out on time and making sure people are actually looking for jobs.”