Passed by both houses of Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton on August 7, 1998, the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) establishes and funds a large scope of employment based programs, entities, and activities geared towards workforce development for individuals throughout the country seeking assistance towards gaining and maintaining viable careers while at the same time guaranteeing them essential protections from discrimination. WIA contains five main titles, each of which covers important provisions in carrying out its primary goals. Title I establishes “Workforce Investment Systems” to create a national network of job and skills training systems focused on providing the unemployed or underemployed (including youth) the proper skill sets necessary for them to hold appropriate and sustainable careers. Much of Bill legislations long-term goals involve spurring economic prosperity and development while maintaining competitiveness in the global market. The first title of WIA designates state Workforce Investment Boards, controlled by the governors and legislature of each state to develop “workforce development areas” responsible for establishing eligibility criteria and success measures for training programs as well as accountability standards for internal checks and oversight. Employment centers were also established in local neighborhoods as “one-stop” delivery systems for those seeking access to core employment services provided by WIA. Services in Title I as well as the whole of WIA are intended to be implemented at the local level where the needs of businesses and the local population can be assessed and best understood. Lastly, this title provides for an array of national programs such as the Job Corps; Native American programs; Migrant and Seasonal Farmworker programs; Veteran Workforce Investment programs; Youth Councils in every state; National Emergency grants; and other special national projects.
Title II of WIA is referred to as the “Adult Education and Literacy” provision, which focuses on providing adults literacy (reading, writing, and comprehension) training as well as mathematics and technology education necessary for economic self-sufficiency and success in secondary and postsecondary education. This title also specifically focuses on career and education-based goals that support proper parenting and child rearing as well as teaching immigrants a well-developed understanding of the American system of governance and the responsibilities of proper citizenship. Title III reauthorizes the Wagner-Peyser Act (first passed in 1933 under FDR to aid those affected by the Great Depression, eventually helping an estimated 29 million Americans find employment) to require Employment and Job Services provided through the Department of Labor be made part of the “one-stop” delivery system. The Wagner-Peyser reauthorization also creates an employment statistical system initiative that supports formula grants to state workforce agencies to collect and analyze labor market information so that employment trends influenced by WIA and other changes in policies can be measured.
Of the greatest relevance and impact to Independent living Centers, the services they provide and the many individuals with disabilities they serve is Title IV of the Workforce Investment Act that reauthorizes and updates (by amendment) the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This landmark legislation referred to commonly as the “Rehab act” created standards and regulations prohibiting the discrimination of individuals with disabilities in any program, position, or activity receiving direct or indirect federal funds. One of the most widely known parts of the Rehab Act is section 504 which not only bars discrimination but also establishes criteria for creating specialized education plans, or “504 plans” to accommodate the diverse needs of each individual with a disability attending public school. The act also establishes a system of Statewide Independent living Council’s charged with the responsibility of formulating state plans designating how funds from the Department of Education’s Rehabilitation Services Agencies or RSA will be spent in each state and how money will be disbursed through the states various Independent Living Centers and service providers. Lastly, Title V includes “General Provisions” which among several things gives authority for State unified plans relating to several workforce development programs, and provides incentive grants for States exceeding negotiated performance levels under the Workforce Investment Act, Adult Education Act, and Perkins Vocational Education Act, and transition provisions.
So why reauthorize the Workforce Investment Act? First and foremost it is important to note that certain programs authorized or reauthorized under the act including the Adult Education and Literacy programs as well as Rehabilitation Act programs were only approved through Fiscal Year 2003 as five-year grants. Additionally, over a decade has passed since the latest adjustments to any workforce programs through which time American have been dealing with the growing impact of the continuation of its longest war in the Middle East and experienced its largest economic downturn since the 1930s. Fortunately the reauthorization of such a program offers a window of opportunity for both Americans and lawmakers to come together and agree on a piece of legislation that crosses partisan lines and allows for the opportunity to adjust and update the country’s largest single source of federal funding for workforce development. It would seem that at a time one our entire society is being affected by so many complicated and diverse problems between economic growth issues and meeting the healthcare needs of families and returning wounded veterans, a system of programs focused on educating and equalizing a 21st century workforce of eager-to-learn and ready-to-train citizens is sorely needed.
Just this past month on July 31, the United States Senate Committee on Health, Education Labor and Pensions (also referred to as the HELP committee) agreed by a vote of 18 to 3 to support a 2013 Workforce Investment bill (S. 1356) that finally reauthorizes the Workforce Investment Act, including the Rehabilitation Act. This has been a long-standing priority of the Independent Living Community and many of its national organizations and networks of advocates around the country due to the particular influence the Rehab Act holds over these organizations. Among many significant changes included in this year’s proposal, is the creation of an Independent living administration (ILA) and relocation of the Independent Living Program from the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) in the Department of Education to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Administration for Community Living (ACL). The separation of the independent living program from the RSA to the ACL under the Department of Health and Human Services creates long sought after autonomy and independence in which the newly formed ILA will be able to function. Outside of the ILA, the current proposal reviews and adjusts certain formulas for programs and grants based on the drastic changes in the last 10 years to our workforce and our school systems. Understandably complicated, the complexity, size, and scope of the Workforce Investment Act should not be understated, and such a vital and influential support system should be given serious consideration by our representatives in Washington DC as to its potential in being the drastically needed lifeline to our economic recovery and a sustainable and competitive 21st-century workforce needed to carry us through to the top of the future.