Aspen Economic Strategy Group Presents Policies to Increase Work, Wages, and Skills

February 4, 2019

The bipartisan group’s first publication focuses on helping more Americans thrive in the modern economy

Contact: Jon Purves
Senior Media Relations Associate
The Aspen Institute
 [email protected] | 202-736-2111

Washington, D.C., February 4, 2019 – The Aspen Economic Strategy Group (ESG), an Aspen Institute initiative, today released the policy volume: “Expanding Economic Opportunities for More Americans: Bipartisan Policies to Increase Work, Wages, and Skills.” The group of distinguished thinkers and leaders, co-chaired by Henry M. Paulson, Jr. and Erskine Bowles, seeks to advance evidence-based solutions to pressing challenges in the American economy.

“Emerging trends in the labor market, technology and globalization are reshaping the modern economy and the nature of work,” said Henry M. Paulson, Jr. “Unfortunately, America is not addressing the fundamental and festering challenges facing our economy, ranging from stagnant middle-class wages and slow productivity growth to rising income disparity and declining employment among prime-age workers.”

“There is no silver bullet solution, and not everyone agrees with every idea,” said Erskine Bowles, “But in today’s political climate, we think the biggest contribution we can make is to facilitate civil, bipartisan dialogue about evidence-based solutions. This is what the Aspen Economic Strategy Group and this policy volume seek to do.”

The volume is organized according to three policy goals: (1) upskilling America’s workforce, (2) increasing prime-age labor force participation, and (3) expanding private-sector wage growth among low- and middle-income workers. On each topic, discussion papers written by working groups of ESG members identify problems and discuss solutions and are accompanied by policy proposals written by leading experts from outside of the group.  Key proposals from each working group include:

Results-Driven Investments in Community Colleges

  • America is facing a college dropout crisis: nearly half of college students fail to complete their degree within six years.
  • Among community college students, where a third of America’s college students begin their postsecondary education, only 40 percent of degree-seeking students complete their degree within six years.
  • Recognizing community colleges are under severe resource constraints, Glenn Hubbard, Austan Goolsbee, and Amy Ganz call for significant federal investments in community colleges, that would be contingent upon demonstrated progress in degree completion rates and labor market outcomes.

Increasing Prime-Age Labor Force Participation

  • Today’s historically low unemployment rates are masking the fact that millions of prime-working age Americans are no longer in the labor force. The share of prime-age individuals in the workforce has been declining for many decades and remains two percentage points below its 1999 peak.
  • The steepest declines have taken place among non-college educated individuals and have been particularly acute in rural regions. Only one-in-two low-skilled men in rural America worked for pay in 2016, a rate which is 15 percentage points lower than their counterparts in urban America.
  • To combat these challenges, ESG members Keith Hennessey and Bruce Reed call for a number of policy responses, including tightening eligibility rules for Social Security Disability Insurance, reducing incarceration and improving labor force reentry for former prisoners, as well as experimenting with active labor market policies in rural areas, such as wage subsidies and relocation assistance.

Driving Private Sector Employment and Wage Growth  

  • American households in the middle and at the bottom of the income distribution experienced annual income gains of only one percent on average between 1979 and 2015.
  • ESG members Jason Furman and Phillip Swagel outline two alternative proposals to increase wages and employment among low- and middle-income workers in the near term: (1) Dramatically expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit for childless workers, or (2) Implementing a wage subsidy for low-income workers that would be administered through employers.
  • The authors discuss the benefits and drawbacks of each option, and also outline the features of a longer-term bipartisan strategy to promote more widespread prosperity.

“This policy volume is the result of bipartisan debate and discussion over the past year,” said Aspen Economic Strategy Group director Melissa Kearney. “We sought out concrete, evidence-based proposals that had bipartisan appeal and targeted specific barriers to economic opportunity. The resulting policy ideas range from reforming land use regulations and reforming community colleges to interventions in rural labor markets and incarceration reform. All together, these policies would move the needle.”

Members of the ESG contributing to this publication have worked at the highest levels of policy, business, government, academia, and civil society. A full list can be viewed here: https://www.aspeninstitute.org/team/economic-strategy-group/. The policy proposals do not represent a consensus view, but are the reflection of 12 months of bipartisan discussion within the working groups.

Editor’s Note: The report will be presented at an event in Washington, D.C., from 9 a.m.–12:30 p.m.  on Monday, February 4 at the Aspen Institute headquarters. For more information and to view the livestream, visit https://www.aspeninstitute.org/events/expanding-economic-opportunity-for-more-americans-bipartisan-policies-to-increase-work-wages-and-skills/

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The mission of the Aspen Economic Strategy Group (ESG) is to gather, in a non-partisan spirit, a diverse range of distinguished leaders and thinkers to address significant structural challenges in the U.S. economy. Led by co-chairs Henry Paulson and Erskine Bowles, the ESG fosters an open exchange of new and out-of-the-box economic policy ideas, and socializes viable, bipartisan solutions to pressing economic challenges among Washington policymakers. The ESG also seeks to foster bipartisan relationship-building among the next generation of policy leaders in Washington. 

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, DC. Its mission is to foster leadership based on enduring values and to provide a nonpartisan venue for dealing with critical issues. The Institute is based in Washington, DC; Aspen, Colorado; and on the Wye River on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. It also has offices in New York City and an international network of partners. For more information, visit www.aspeninstitute.org.

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