Workforce challenges in the Iowa City — Cedar Rapids (ICR) region have done a dramatic about-face. Just a few months ago, we had more jobs than people for the first time in modern history. Today we have record high unemployment and face an uncertain economic future.
We’ve learned from past mistakes, though, that regions can never ease up on economic development efforts, including the unending need to attract, retain and grow our skilled workforce. And yes, that’s true even in the midst of a global pandemic that has created short-term job shortages.
Workforce development includes myriad strategies, tactics and solutions. One pretty simple but oft-overlooked opportunity comes in the form of incarcerated citizens with near-future release dates. Postsecondary education in prison equips incarcerated individuals with skills to secure a job upon release, and provides businesses with an even larger pool of skilled potential workers. Yet cost is a huge barrier to entry for incarcerated individuals pursuing postsecondary education. This is why the Economic Alliance supports ending the federal ban of incarcerated individuals to access Pell Grants, the primary source of financial aid to low-income students. The Economic Alliance, along with chambers of commerce and economic development partners across the state, is urging our federal representatives to pass the Restoring Education and Learning (REAL) Act (S. 1074) to repeal the federal ban on Pell Grants for people in prison.
The Vera Institute of Justice and the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality found that removing the federal ban on Pell Grants for people in prison would increase employment rates among formerly incarcerated students by 10 percent, on average. Increased employment rates at well-paying jobs means higher incomes for formerly incarcerated people. The study also found that the combined earnings would increase by $45.3 million during the first year of release alone if postsecondary education is more available in prison. Higher earnings allow people to participate more fully in their communities, resulting in a boost to our local, state, and national economies.
Broadly expanding access to postsecondary education in prison also improves public safety. About 95 percent of people in prison will eventually be released. When incarcerated people gain the education and skills necessary to secure employment, they are about 48 percent less likely to return to prison than those who don’t gain those skills. Lower prison re-entry rates help keep families together and positively disrupts cycles of poverty and involvement in the criminal justice system.
As formerly incarcerated people return home, it’s important — for themselves, their families, and our communities — that they can secure a good job. And it’s important for our businesses that we have a robust pool of skilled workers to hire from as we move forward with economic recovery. Expanding access to postsecondary education in prison by lifting the ban on Pell Grants for incarcerated individuals will produce better outcomes for businesses and our community. I call on our representatives in Congress to act on this common-sense criminal justice reform now, so our businesses are prepared to come back stronger than ever.
Doug Neumann is executive director of the Cedar Rapids Metro Economic Alliance.