Pay Down, Upskill: A Smart Investment in America’s Workforce
In April 2020, Michigan’s jobless rate was 24%, nearly 10 percentage points higher than the national average.1 A year and a half later, as a native Michigander, I find myself reflecting on that number and the devastating impact COVID-19 has had on the state’s economy. Michigan was hard hit by the pandemic early on, seeing both soaring COVID-19 case numbers and skyrocketing unemployment.2 Over the course of 2020, 15.3% of Michigan’s workforce was either unemployed or not actively looking for work. Michigan’s benefits system struggled to keep up with unemployment claims, and some industries like hospitality and tourism, were especially slow to recover.
But Michigan is not alone in feeling the economic havoc COVID has wrecked on our current and future workforce. As the country continues to recover, Congress has a responsibility to help American workers stay on their feet and prepare for the future. Thankfully, Representative Conor Lamb (PA-17) recently introduced a bill aiming to do exactly that–a much-needed lifeline for the over 400,000 people still unemployed in his state.3
Known as the Pay Down, Upskill Act of 2021, this bill will provide eligible Americans between the ages of 18 and 65 with a one-time education credit of $10,000 that they can use to either pay down existing student loan debt or pursue high-quality training to upskill for the future economy. This powerful investment in higher education will support Americans anywhere along the postsecondary pipeline, whether they’ve already been to college or would like to go. For those eligible recipients who hold student loans, the U.S. Department of Education will automatically cancel up to $10,000 in federal debt or provide a check to pay down private loans. If the recipient chooses to use the credit to upskill at an eligible degree or training program, the Department will disburse the funds directly to their school to offset the cost of their education.
This bill is unique among proposals to address student loan debt burdens in its focus on providing a benefit to both Americans who hold student loans and those who do not. Focusing on debt cancellation alone would send the benefits to wealthier Americans who may have been less affected by the pandemic—including those with graduate degrees, who are more likely to have high median earnings and low unemployment rates during downturns and hold nearly half of the total student loan portfolio—missing those who do not have the credentials they need to navigate a post-COVID labor market. But in Michigan and nationally, 39% of people over the age of 18 have no postsecondary education whatsoever.4 In Pennsylvania, that number is even higher (44%), meaning 60% of adults in the state could benefit from the education credit. By targeting this large federal investment to a broader group of individuals to help them pay down or upskill, this bill will ultimately do more to alleviate the negative impacts COVID-19 has had on the country while also looking to the future by investing in our workforce.
The Pay Down, Upskill Act of 2021 eases the burden student loans may have on Americans with debt during the pandemic while giving those without debt and with no college education the opportunity to pursue new training. I look forward to the benefit this will provide to my own loved ones in Michigan, in addition to the broader nation, and encourage Congress to prioritize the needs of our workforce by supporting the bill.
Gardner, Paula. “One year into pandemic, these numbers frame Michigan’s uneven recovery.” 15 Mar. 2021, https://www.bridgemi.com/business-watch/one-year-pandemic-these-numbers-frame-michigans-uneven-recovery. Accessed 24 Sept. 2021.
State of Michigan. “Coronavirus: Michigan Data.” https://www.michigan.gov/coronavirus/0,9753,7-406-98163_98173---,00.html. Accessed 24 Sept. 2021.
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Economy at a Glance: Pennsylvania.” 29 Sept. 2021, https://www.bls.gov/eag/eag.pa.htm. Accessed 4 Oct. 2021.
Third Way original analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data.