A Strong Middle Class Blog

  • Blogging to the Middle: For Green Jobs, the First Step is Training

    Last Tuesday at the Fourth Middle Class Task Force Meeting in Denver, Vice President Biden announced a $500 million green jobs training program designed to connect people to opportunities in the clean energy economy.
    Vice President Biden at a meeting of the Middle Class Task Force(Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a middle class task force even at the Denver Museum of Science and Nature in Denver, Colorado, Tuesday, May 26, 2009. Official White House Photo by David Lienemann)
    For many, small investments in training in new technology can pay off.   Tom Fittus was at the Task Force meeting. A licensed electrician, Tom was looking for a new job after his old employer’s business slowed down. He enrolled in a two week solar-specific job training course and was hired by Namaste Solar, a small business in Colorado that builds and designs solar electric systems. Tom’s boss Blake Jones said Tom’s course made him "stick out" when he was considering hiring Tom, and considers specialized green job training as a substantial competitive advantage for both job seekers and businesses. Blake has even increased Namaste’s workforce by 20% this year and plans on increasing it by 40% by 2010- with help from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
    Roby Roberts of Vestas America, a wind turbine manufacturer, also shared the story of his company. Vestas is investing $1.5 billion in manufacturing facilities in Colorado that will employ 2,500 people when in operation. After it is built, Vestas’s Pueblo plant will be using more than two Golden Gate Bridges of steel to build wind turbine towers every year. A barrier to expanding its operations in the United States is finding skilled workers. That’s why Vestas is training the workforce it will need in Pueblo through a partnership with the local community college.
    Vice President Biden at a meeting of the Middle Class Task Force(Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a middle class task force even at the Denver Museum of Science and Nature in Denver, Colorado, Tuesday, May 26, 2009. Official White House Photo by David Lienemann)
    Garett Reppenhagen, a veteran who served as a sniper in Iraq and in Kosovo, was also at the Task Force meeting. Garett is a member of Veterans Green Jobs, an organization representing veterans of every branch of military who have enrolled in the Veterans Green Jobs Academy, a training and deployment program in energy efficiency and conservation. When these veterans graduate from their green jobs training on June 2nd, they will be leaders in green building, energy and renewable energies.   As our troops return from Iraq and Afghanistan, green jobs offer high paying opportunities for veterans that cannot be outsourced. 
    These are just three examples of why the $500 million green jobs training program is critical – whether to help someone update their skills so they can work on new technology like solar panels or to support the development of a skilled clean energy workforce to attract investment by renewable energy companies – investing in training is the first step toward expanding opportunities for the middle class in our clean energy economy.
    Terrell McSweeny is Domestic Policy Advisor for the Vice President.

  • Blogging to the Middle: 100 Days of Recovery

    It’s been just over 100 days since we passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Which seemed to us here in middle-class-taskforce-land like a good time to remind folks of some of stuff in the Act providing much-needed help to middle-class families.   For example:
    • Jobs created by the ARRA are predicted to lower the unemployment rate by almost two percentage points. We expect this change to increase average middle-class incomes by over $1,300, or 2.3%.
    • Depending on family type and circumstances, the tax benefits from the ARRA provisions can add $2,000 or more to after-tax family income.
    • Combining job and tax effects, the ARRA will lift incomes by around $3,000 for many middle-class families, significantly offsetting their income losses over the recession.
    • For middle-class families hit with spells of unemployment, tax credits and safety net expansion in the ARRA, combined with existing unemployment insurance programs, can replace much of the income loss that occurs when a wage-earner in the family loses his or her job.
    For more info, see here. And if you just can’t get enough of dot.gov websites, don’t forget www.Recovery.gov, a sui generis exercise in transparency.
    Jared Bernstein is the Vice President's chief economist and chief of staff for the Middle Class Task Force.

  • Blogging to the Middle

    Jared Bernstein, the Executive Director of the Middle Class Task Force and the Vice President's Chief Economist, puts recent events on clean energy and the economy into perspective:
    Hey, taskforce fans. We’re just back from Denver where we hosted our fourth meeting. It was on the green economy and the opportunities therein for middle-class folks. VP Biden was joined by all kinds of interesting partners from our world, including Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis; Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan; Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack; Deputy Secretary of Energy Dan Poneman; United States Trade Representative Ron Kirk; and Special Advisor for Green Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation at the White House Council on Environmental Quality, Van Jones.
    Once again, the Vice-President hosted a town-hall style meeting because that’s the best way for him and the rest of this crew to learn what middle-class families are going through right now, and how these issues resonate with them (read the Vice President’s opening remarks).
    Vice President Biden at a meeting of the Middle Class Task Force
    (Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a middle class task force even at the Denver Museum of Science and Nature in Denver, Colorado, Tuesday, May 26, 2009. Official White House Photo by David Lienemann)
    Those who’ve been with us from the beginning will notice that this is our second taskforce meeting on this topic of green jobs. This is no accident: our emphasis on green energy occurs at the intersection of two of the Obama Administration’s most important policy initiatives: protecting the environment and creating good jobs.
    On the first point—fighting back against global warming—this past week has been a good one. On Tuesday the President hosted an historic event where stakeholders who have been at odds for years on this stuff came together to support a much higher mileage standard for vehicles. (BTW, IMHO one of President Obama’s more important skills is the ability to take folks who traditionally line up on opposite sides and bring them together—you see it in health care too.) 
    The administration’s plan to promote clean energy use also made some headway in Congress last week.
    Then there’s green jobs, which we define broadly (and loosely—there is no official definition) as jobs that help to improve the environment in some way. That includes blue collar workers building out the smart grid to efficiently move the wind power (green, renewable energy) across the land. It includes "weatherizers" who can diagnose and repair the energy inefficiencies in your house or business. And it includes the green manufacturers who made those wind turbines or the scientists and lab technicians who developed those renewable energy sources and weatherization materials.
    It’s important to see the connection between these various initiatives: our clean energy agenda, mileage standards, and green jobs. By setting higher mileage standards and by promoting incentives to use clean energy (while reducing our dependence on foreign oil), we create new demand for the science, techniques, products, and tools to meet the standards. We help to grow the market for more efficient engines and new production techniques that reduce carbon emissions. And a growing market means more jobs for middle-class families.
    Now, with new markets come new labor demands, and new demand requires new supply. In this case, we’ll need more workers with the skills to meet the demands, and that’s a big focus of our Denver meeting. We’re announcing a great, new green jobs training program funded by $500 million from the Recovery Act.
    So, go green, and go taskforce!
    Vice President Biden at a meeting of the Middle Class Task Force(Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a middle class task force even at the Denver Museum of Science and Nature in Denver, Colorado, Tuesday, May 26, 2009. Official White House Photo by David Lienemann)

  • White House Enviro Council Accepts Biden Challenge: Help Retrofit America

    We asked Van Jones, Special Advisor for Green Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation at the White House Council on Environmental Quality, to explain the significance of today’s meeting of the Middle Class Task Force.
    To rebuild and strengthen the middle class, Vice President Joe Biden wants Americans earning more money in enterprises that upgrade America’s buildings, increase their efficiency, save money, and at the same time, help to improve our environment.
    A smart plan will ultimately save Americans billions of dollars in energy costs, while creating jobs and reducing the strain on our nation’s power grid. Reducing the load on our coal-fired power plants would, in turn, cut air pollution - letting our kids and seniors breathe a little easier.
    At the same time, retrofitting American homes will also enhance their value - since energy efficient homes are more valuable than drafty ones. In other words, an aggressive program to retrofit America will create more work, more wealth, and better health for middle class Americans.
    That is why today Vice President Biden asked the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) to help the administration develop long-term, innovative proposals to begin weatherizing and retrofitting our nation’s building stock.
    Fortunately, the Obama-Biden administration is already off to a great start! Through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), the administration made a significant investment in making America’s homes more energy efficient, dramatically increasing previous funding levels for weatherization and retrofit of buildings. 
    For example, the Weatherization Assistance Program was funded at only around $250 million in 2008. The Recovery Act boosted funding to $5 billion. That translates to jobs for professionally trained crews using computerized energy audits and advanced equipment to determine the most cost-effective measures. To meet this demand for workers, there will have to be a huge ramp-up in training workers. That's why the Recovery Act also includes $500 million for green job training through the Department of Labor.
    Moving beyond those who are presently benefiting, the Obama-Biden administration wants to find ways to extend energy efficiency to the entire middle class. On average, a complete weatherization reduces a household’s annual gas heating consumption by 32 percent; that translates to an average of $350/ year, at current prices. Retrofitting and upgrading buildings so they waste less energy benefits the middle class in numerous ways: job creation; entrepreneurial and business opportunities; a healthier environment; and reduced home energy costs.
    We don’t want the national drive to cut America’s home energy bills to come to an end when the Recovery Act funding is spent. So, over the next 90 days, we will review proposals that build on the foundation laid in ARRA to expand green opportunity and energy savings for the middle class. We at CEQ are happy to accept the challenge!

  • Middle Class Task Force: Returning to the Scene of the Green

    Next week on May 26th the Middle Class Task Force will hold its fourth official meeting entitled "Building a Strong Middle Class through a Green Economy." The town hall style meeting will be held at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science where the President signed the Recovery Act and kicked off a new wave of green jobs across the country.
    The first meeting of the Task Force was also on this topic -- held in Philadelphia it explored the vision and possibilities of green jobs.  This meeting will start looking at how those possibilities are becoming reality, and how the full potential of that vision be reached. The impressive roster of attendees will include Vice President Biden (Chair of Task Force), Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, Deputy Secretary of Energy Daniel Poneman, US Trade Representative Ron Kirk, and Van Jones, Special Advisor for Green Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation at the White House Council on Environmental Quality.

  • Middle Class Task Force Report: College Affordability

    To see why the Middle Class Task Force is holding its third official meeting in St. Louis on "Making College More Affordable for our Families," you need only look at this chart from the staff report showing the rise of median family income over the past 30 years compared to the rise in tuition costs:
    College costs skyrocket while middle class incomes stagnate
    The Vice President and others from the Task Force, joined by 28-year educator Dr. Jill Biden, are delving deep into these issues at their meeting. And for those with kids in college, or even just experiencing a sense of dread as tuition costs skyrocket year after year while your children grow up, the full report is worth a read. It examines the causes of the rise in costs, and addresses them head on. It discusses the fundamental shift in the treatment of government assistance in the President’s budget proposal, from increasing loans and grants to protecting them from political back-and-forth in the budget process year to year, ensuring families will always be able to count on the help they expect. The report also examines innovative ways that colleges can cut down on their costs, which are a primary factor in tuition costs alongside state budget cuts. This is all related to the President’s goal that by 2020, America should once again lead the world in the proportion of adults with a college degree.
    Vice President Biden Listens to Education Secretary Duncan(Vice President Joe Biden listens as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan answers a question from the audience during a Middle Class Task Force event on College Affordability at the University of Missouri St. Louis, Friday, April 17, 2009. Official White House Photo by David Lienemann)
    For those who have been through the process, or are facing the daunting task of applying for aid, the section on simplifying that process may be of particular interest:
    Simplifying the Application Process for Aid
    Another obstacle to federal student aid is the unnecessarily complicated application process that is often intimidating to families and students seeking loans. In order to qualify for aid, students or their parents must first complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form, which contains well over 100 questions on income, assets, family characteristics, personal characteristics, and other items. Completing the FAFSA requires families to sift through paperwork and transfer numbers from tax forms that they may or may not have readily available.
    The fact that well over one million students who could qualify for aid went without it during the 2003-2004 school year is one indication that the application process is too complicated. Furthermore, students who do not apply for aid due to the complexity of the process may be discouraged from applying to college at all, reducing college attendance rates. As a result, the complicated process works at cross-purposes with our goal of increasing college attendance and completion. Experts widely agree that the system is in need of change. There are two broad strategies to simplify the financial aid application process that are currently under discussion.
    One strategy is to make it easier to complete the current form. For example, according to The Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS), about two-thirds of the questions on income and assets that are included in the FAFSA form can be automatically answered using IRS data. This means that the U.S. Department of Education could obtain this information directly from the IRS, and the student or family would only be required to answer the remaining questions. TICAS contends that a simplified process would have the added benefit of reducing errors among filers who erroneously transfer data by hand from their tax returns to the FAFSA form. It would also remove the burden of requiring colleges and universities to verify the income information on the FAFSA form using tax returns. The use of IRS data is also an attractive option because it can make the financial aid application process more efficient on its own or can be combined with other FAFSA simplification proposals. Importantly, compelling new research suggests that FAFSA simplification can substantially increase applications for student aid as well as subsequent college enrollment.
    While appealing, simplification of the application process may not substantially address the length and complexity of the FAFSA for some, such as those who do not file tax returns with the IRS. Furthermore, even after removing the 22 questions that could be completed with data directly from the IRS, the form still would include nearly 100 questions. As a result, a second strategy for simplifying the application process for student aid is to shorten the form by reducing the number of questions asked. The scope of such simplification could be small or large, depending on the number of questions eliminated. The advantages of a short form would include greater transparency and the ability to make earlier determinations of aid. As an extreme example, economists Susan Dynarski and Judith Scott-Clayton have advocated for a form based on adjusted gross income and family size alone.14 Combined with IRS data, such an application would provide immediate, verifiable feedback on the amount of aid for which a student would be eligible. They argue that this would likely facilitate more timely decisions for families concerning higher education financing, and it would do so with only modest changes to the distribution of aid. This proposal represents just one possibility, but even a much less radical simplification would substantially ease the burden of filing the FAFSA on students and their families.
    Strategies for simplifying the financial aid application process have potential merits, potential impacts on financial aid awards, and potential challenges in implementation. However, it is clear that simplification makes good policy sense, and that it would help families benefit from important resources available to help cover the cost of college.


    Dr. Jill Biden speaks on college affordability(Dr. Jill Biden introduces Vice President Joe Biden during a Middle Class Task Force event on College Affordability at the University of Missouri St. Louis, Friday, April 17, 2009. Official White House Photo by David Lienemann)