Trump's Job Corps Reforms Stir Rural Lawmakers' Unease

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An unusual criticism emerged from the 2016 election, not just against Donald Trump but also against the rural, working-class voters who helped make him president.

Couldn’t this slice of the electorate see, critics complained, that a vote for Trump was a vote against government health care, government-funded education, government welfare benefits? Certainly, they concluded, voting for this Republican was akin to voting against their own economic self-interest.

With another election around the corner, another case in point has emerged in that narrative: The Trump administration’s decision to pull out of a rural Job Corps program and lay off as many as 1,100 workers.

Because of the federal nature of these programs, the administration has a free hand to shutter Job Corps centers it finds lacking. And while Congress has little say in the matter, an announcement last month by the Department of Labor stirred up a bipartisan hornet’s nest.

Led by Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, 18 senators and 33 representatives sent a protest letter to Labor Secretary Alex Acosta and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.

“These centers not only help support these underserved youth and young adults with invaluable job training, but they also provide essential capacity for the U.S. Forest Service to fulfill its mission and provide economic opportunities in rural areas,” they wrote.

Even Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has seven centers in his state, dashed off his own plea.

But administration officials tell RealClearPolitics the criticism is overblown. Closing certain job centers and reforming others isn’t meant to limit opportunity. It is about ensuring a responsible return on investment for taxpayers and also ensuring the safety of those who count on this program for training. Ultimately, they argue, it is in the best interest of the communities these centers are meant to serve.

“The Job Corp program is decades overdue for reform, which should come as no surprise with reports of violence and deaths seen in multiple IG reports,” one told RCP. “We can prioritize taxpayer funds to better-performing centers to help the most students and communities with real positive impact.”

And on this point, Trump is not alone. While liberal critics might complain that the administration has exercised a limited-government vendetta, they would have a harder time making that same case against his predecessor. And yet, President Obama called for reforms, managed to shut down three underperforming centers, and even won rare praise from the conservative Heritage Foundation.

Trump is more ambitious by comparison, though still limited in his impact thus far. There are currently 123 Job Corps centers, an enduring legacy of Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society policies. Located predominantly in rural areas, the facilities are meant to offer people in struggling communities a leg up and onto the economic ladder through job training. Trump won’t end the program. He proposes unifying it under control of the Department of Labor.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service currently operates 25 Civilian Conservation Centers, a subset of the Job Corps program. As part of the change, those will be overseen by the Labor Department, according to a May press release, with 16 of them placed under the control of contractors and the other nine will be closed.

Any students affected by the closures will have an opportunity to finish their training at the current centers, continue it once new management takes over, or transfer to another location.

Despite those accommodations, the administration’s plans have sent lawmakers scrambling to phone the president and defend their interests. Republican Sen. Steve Daines (pictured) put in a call to the Oval Office and later put out a press release, assuring his Montana constituents that Trump assured him that a job center in the town of Anaconda would not be closing.

Other lawmakers are making similar arguments, but they must confront a body of research showing that the program does little to help disadvantaged youth.

A study in the 2008 American Economic Review found that Job Corps participants were less likely to earn a high school diploma and no more likely to graduate from college than non-participants. There were some negligible differences in wage outcomes between those in the program and a control group, namely $22 more in pay per week ($1,150 annually).

In a more recent report, the Labor Department’s own inspector general concluded bluntly that “the Job Corps could not demonstrate beneficial job training outcomes.”

A track record like that combined with a hefty price tag — Uncle Sam reportedly pays between $15,000 and $45,000 for each of the nearly 50,000 students enrolled — makes the program a fat target for Trump. Perhaps more politically damning than the dollars and cents, though, are the human costs.

The inspector general found in 2017 that Job Corps centers had repeatedly failed to respond effectively to potentially serious criminal misconduct. That same year the Government Accountability Office found that there were 49,836 reported safety and security incidents at centers since 2007, including 265 deaths. In 2016, for example, there were 31 deaths.

Administration aides who spoke with RCP would not discuss safety concerns at the nine centers that are set to close, and the Department of Labor did not respond to calls requesting comment. Local news outlets, however, have long detailed questionable safety practices as well violence.

Physical and sexual assault charges were filed in 2018 against two students enrolled in Illinois Job Corps programs. Police were called in 2017 to put down a riot that broke out at a Virginia location and five students were arrested. There have been reports of rape, drug trafficking, and even suicide at other centers around the country.

Those are the kind of examples the administration will spotlight as rebuttals in the debate over the fate of the centers. And while reforms and closures will occur in economically depressed areas, the officials insist, the changes are aimed at ultimately helping the working class. Whether that argument stands up against lawmakers lobbying the president with parochial concerns remains to be seen.

Julia Mullins contributed research to this report.

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