For better or worse, the jurisdictional authority of local government has generally declined over the last two centuries in the United States. As a result, those of us focused on local governance often have to concede that many of the major social, economic, and political challenges of the day are simply beyond the purview of what most local governments can address.
That is why it is so refreshing to see, in our latest survey of local policymakers, two policy areas that local governments can pursue which tackle major challenges and—perhaps most remarkably–enjoy bipartisan support. In collaboration with researchers at Emory University and Washington University in Saint Louis, CivicPulse conducted a nationally representative survey of local government leaders to ask them their beliefs about the potential impact and feasibility of local policies improving access to six different resources: job skills training, adequate wages, childcare, public transportation, housing, and early childhood education.
Among the six policy areas, two stood out in terms of their perceived feasibility: job skills training and early childhood education. A majority of both parties—55% of Democratic officials and 52% of Republican officials—agreed that increasing access to job skills training would be feasible. 51% of Democrats and 47% of Republicans perceived the same to be true for early childhood education. In contrast, the other four policy areas were all rated less likely to be feasible.
Job skills training programs seek to make participants more employable and can benefit communities more broadly by helping local businesses obtain access to a skilled labor force. Early childhood education programs, starting as early as infancy, are aimed at improving the well-being of children and ensuring that they are well-prepared to enter the K-12 portion of their education.
In the case of job training, local governments can build on existing federal programs. The 2014 Workforce Opportunity and Innovation Act, which reformed previous workforce development legislation, provides federal funding to help find employment, education, training and support for people seeking jobs. Under WIOA, state administrators identify economic development regions in consultation with local workforce development boards.
Local officials are uniquely knowledgeable about the strengths and weaknesses of their local labor markets, as well as the needs of current and future employers. These officials are well positioned to make well-informed decisions to supplement or provide policy guidance for future workforce development efforts.
With early childhood education, local governments can also build on existing federal programs. For example, Head Start–the main federal program–is administered separately from traditional school districts, and social service agencies can serve as local grantees. In this context, local governments can play an important role in cultivating local stakeholders to ensure federal funds flow to their communities.
Furthermore, federal funding for early childhood education is often inadequate, so local governments can provide supplemental appropriations to their communities' Head Start grantees to increase the number of eligible families who are actually served. Local governments might also provide assistance to encourage applications and guide families through the process.
Improving access to job training and early childhood education are both policy goals in which local leaders across the aisle see the possibility of effective action. In supporting existing federal programs, they can leverage their knowledge of their local communities while supplementing financial support when necessary. While local governments can’t solve all the nation’s problems, at least these are two areas where there seems to be real opportunity.
The research underlying this brief was built on data from a national random-sample survey of 574 local elected leaders, fielded between March to May 2022. The sample frame draws on Power Almanac’s continuously updated contact list of government officials from counties, municipalities, and townships with populations of 1,000 or more. The survey was developed in collaboration with Dr. Renee Parks and Dr. Alexandra Morshed, and implemented by the CivicPulse Team.
Below are the key survey items used to generate the results:
In your opinion, how feasible would increasing access to each of these be in your community in the next 5 years?
Job skills training
Efficient public transportation
High-quality early education
Answer choices: Not at all feasible, Slightly feasible, Somewhat feasible, Moderately feasible, Extremely feasible
Nathan Lee, PhD
Managing Director of CivicPulse