Advancing a People-First Economy

Section 2: Opportunity and Mobility

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Commission on Reimagining Our Economy
Two individuals eating a meal in a fast-food restaurant as a staff member wipes down a table nearby.
Super Burger in Porterville, California. Photo by Adam Perez.

Our next core values for a reimagined economy are opportunity and mobility. By opportunity, we mean pathways for people to achieve better lives. Mobility refers to the actual outcomes—improvements in income and wealth, especially—achieved by taking advantage of opportunity. Both enable people to hope, aspire, and look forward to the future. Both are essential elements of well-being.

Built into America’s reputation as a land of opportunity is the promise that, by working hard, people have a realistic chance to better their circumstances. But for centuries, nonwhite Americans were systematically locked out of this promise. Today, many Americans, from a variety of backgrounds, also feel that their hard work is not paying off. We heard in our listening sessions that many people cannot access the affordable, high-quality education needed to enhance their skills and their job prospects. In some parts of the country, they feel that all the good jobs have disappeared, and they worry that their communities will continue to miss out on technological and economic progress. And many people face obstacles to employment on account of their criminal backgrounds, immigration status, or seemingly arbitrary government regulations.

The recommendations in this section aim to remove barriers to opportunity and to strengthen avenues for mobility. Some of the ideas are focused on education: working to expand educational benefits in places where they have been denied and to strengthen education-to-career pathways. Others seek to eliminate obstacles in the labor market with the goal of providing more Americans with access to meaningful and sustainable work. Still other recommendations focus on parts of the country that have been left behind, with proposals to provide people and communities with the tools and resources they need to succeed in a technology-based economy. By enabling access to opportunity and mobility, the Commission believes the country will be better positioned to live up to its reputation as a place where hard work and determination can lead to growth, fulfillment, and a better life.

Recommendation 5

Remove Regulations Preventing People from Participating in the Labor Market

In the United States today, too many people face barriers that keep them out of jobs they could do well if given the chance. These barriers are often regulatory: employment laws or requirements that are cumbersome, outdated, or unnecessary. Some are also anticompetitive, unfairly constraining opportunities for new entrants or job changers while advantaging incumbent workers. The Commission has identified five such regulations that it recommends reforming or removing. Doing so would help create a fairer economy by allowing workers to be considered for an array of new jobs that would increase their chances for higher wages, economic security, and upward mobility.

Reform Occupational Licensing

Occupational licenses are required for employment in many professions, from beauticians and real estate agents to school bus drivers and security guards. Nationwide, roughly one-quarter of all jobs require a license of some kind.65 Such requirements are meant to ensure that professionals are trained in their fields and to protect the well-being of consumers. But these requirements have disadvantages. Licensing erects barriers to job entry, hampers interstate mobility, reduces the supply of professionals in licensed fields, increases prices, and reduces access for consumers. It also negatively affects economic growth.66 States should reexamine their licensing requirements and repeal those for professions that do not affect health or safety. States should also enter interstate compacts to recognize licenses from other states.

A barber applies an electric razor to the hair behind the ear of a customer.
Barber in Dearborn, Michigan. The Institute for Justice found Michigan to have among the nation’s most burdensome processes for receiving barber certification. Photo by Maen Hammad.

Eliminate Employment and Licensing Restrictions on Individuals with Felony Convictions Not Strictly Required for Public Safety (“Ban the Box”)

More than seventy million American adults have a criminal record of some kind. Unfortunately, those who have paid their debt to society often find that their record serves as a barrier when they are seeking work. State licensing laws can permit overly broad criminal record inquiries, include blanket bans excluding qualified candidates with records, and encourage a lack of transparency in the licensure decision-making process.

A promising solution that has already been embraced in many parts of the country is to “Ban the Box”: removing from job applications the question asking whether the applicant has ever been convicted of a crime. This gives applicants with criminal histories a fairer chance by delaying questions about their criminal history until later in the hiring process—or removing them altogether. Hiring managers are more likely to form favorable impressions of job seekers and to consider giving them a chance if negative stereotypes are held at bay.

Since Hawaiʻi became the first state to Ban the Box in 1998, a great deal of progress has been made on this issue. As of 2021, thirty-seven states and Washington, D.C., and one hundred fifty cities and counties had adopted this policy for public-sector employment, while fifteen states and twenty-two cities and counties have done so for private-sector employment as well. Eighteen states prohibit blanket bans that deny licenses for any conviction or are based on vague and difficult-to-enforce “good moral character” provisions. In 2019, Congress adopted a Ban the Box approach for federal employees and contractors.67

Nonetheless, some states have not banned the box for either public- or private-sector employment, which makes it harder for job seekers with records to get jobs, take care of themselves and their families, and contribute to society through work. We urge that Ban the Box be extended to more states and municipalities and that states and private-sector employers take affirmative steps to incorporate returning citizens into the labor market.

Case Study

Reforming Occupational Licensing in Arizona

In 2019, Arizona became the first state to adopt universal recognition of occupational licenses. By passing licensing reform legislation, the state legislature and Governor Doug Ducey sought to remove obstacles to work, promote economic growth, and encourage new residents to move to Arizona.

While there has been relative bipartisan support in recent years for occupational licensing reform, states have often run into barriers when trying to enact changes to the system. Industry-based interest groups and professional associations, which benefit from the current licensing apparatus, tend to be politically organized and powerful enough to block licensing reforms. This is particularly true when reformers have sought to change licensing for individual professions, like nursing. By pursuing a universal approach, Arizona was able to avoid the mobilization of profession-based groups and pass a bipartisan piece of reform legislation.68

In doing so, Arizona became a model for states seeking to streamline licensure pathways for new residents. Workers are granted licenses in Arizona if they already hold an occupational license from another state and have been practicing in good standing there for at least one year. These workers also are not required to redo training or other prerequisites. The law has enabled Arizona’s licensing boards to expedite the approval of licenses held in other states, making it easier for new residents to start gainful employment soon after their move.69 Since the passage of Arizona’s model law, seventeen other states have adopted a version of universal occupational licensing reform.70

The implementation of universal occupational licensing has enabled over 6,500 professionals from diverse fields to obtain licenses to work in Arizona. The Arizona Registrar of Contractors (ROC), the body responsible for licensing construction workers like builders, electricians, and plumbers, stands out as the most successful entity in executing the law. Between 2019 and 2023, the ROC has approved 2,277 license applications under the universal recognition law. Recent analysis predicts substantial benefits to the state’s economy from universal licensing, projecting a $1.5 billion boost to the state’s GDP, the addition of sixteen thousand jobs, and the arrival of almost forty-four thousand new state residents by 2030.71

The success of Arizona’s law illustrates the impact occupational licensing reform can have for workers and for states. However, this measure to make occupational licenses portable between states is just one step toward reducing the employment barriers caused by licensing requirements. Arizona’s model primarily aids those relocating to the state. It is essential also to focus on abolishing all unnecessary licensing to expand employment opportunities for all Arizonans.

Ease The Transfer of Professional Credentials Earned Overseas

When immigrants, asylum-seekers, and refugees have completed credentialing processes in their countries of origin, it should be easier for them to transfer those skills to the American labor market. Unfortunately, because of a lack of credential portability, many of them take jobs that do not require a degree or for which they are overqualified, a phenomenon the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) has dubbed “brain waste.” MPI estimates that 2.1 million college-educated immigrants are under­employed, meaning they are unemployed or do not hold jobs commensurate with their skills and education. As of 2016, these immigrants lost out on nearly $40 billion in wages, and federal, state, and local governments were deprived of $10 billion in tax revenue.72 Not only is this situation unfair and burdensome, but it exacerbates talent shortages in fields that face chronic shortfalls, such as health care.

Some states have enacted promising immigrant-focused initiatives that deserve to be studied and possibly copied in other states. Minnesota created a program to certify foreign health care professionals, Maryland launched a similar health apprenticeship program, and Rhode Island and Michigan have created initiatives covering a wide variety of professions.73 The Commission endorses such processes to ease license transfers for workers who were trained outside of the United States, many of whom would also be helped by general occupational licensing reforms.

“We have people who come here as writers, as doctors, as nurses, as engineers, as teachers. And they’re told when they walk through the door that, ‘Great, here are your options. You can go to Walmart. . . . You could go work for Amazon.’ What they never ask them is, what do you want to learn? How do you want to transfer your credentials? Where are you on your journey of education and enrichment as a person?”

— Joseph, Afghan American, Lawyer, California

Listen to this excerpt from our session with Joseph.

Eliminate Unnecessary Degree-Requirement Qualifications

The Commission urges the evaluation of job candidates based on skills rather than credentials. In particular, we endorse the elimination of the unnecessary college degree requirements that are attached to many jobs. Blanket credentialism—marked by an overreliance on degrees, transcripts, and test scores—prevents many motivated workers from competing for jobs that they can do well and that would offer them the chance to earn higher wages.

College credential reform is feasible because it has become significantly more common in recent years as a response to tight labor markets. By one estimate, 34 percent of companies removed college degree requirements from at least some jobs during 2022.74 Other companies are going further. Eighty firms are taking part in the Business Roundtable’s Multiple Pathways Initiative, through which companies are rewriting job descriptions to focus on skills, reviewing interview mechanisms, and developing clear job advancement pathways through specific training milestones and skill acquisitions. IBM, for example, announced it would no longer require a college degree for more than half of its job openings in the United States. The company’s New Collar Jobs program trains and hires individuals with experience, aptitude for learning, and relevant skills, regardless of their educational background.75 The Commission believes the private sector can continue to lead the way in showing that human capital comes in many forms.

Some states, including Pennsylvania, Utah, North Carolina, Maryland, Alaska, and Colorado, have also begun removing degree requirements for public-sector employment.76 The Commission endorses this trend, except in circumstances in which evidence shows that credentials have beneficial outcomes. In public education, for example, research suggests that credentialed teachers have a greater impact on student performance than those who are not credentialed.77

End Noncompete and No-Poaching Agreements

Noncompete agreements prevent workers at a company from working for or starting a competing business. These types of agreements—which employees are at times required to sign as a condition of employment—deprive workers of bargaining power, contribute to weak wage growth, and lead to declining dynamism in the labor market and the innovation ecosystem. In 2023, the Federal Trade Commission proposed a rule banning noncompete agreements, which it estimates could increase wages by nearly $300 billion per year and expand career opportunities for about thirty million Americans.78 Three states and the District of Columbia have banned noncompete agreements entirely, and nine additional states prohibit them for workers earning below a certain threshold. More states should ban or limit their use, particularly for lower-income and nonsalaried workers.

No-poaching agreements are contracts or informal agreements between businesses not to offer jobs to employees of other businesses. Examples include clauses in franchise contracts whereby franchisees agree not to offer jobs to same-brand franchise employees in the local labor market. Other examples are contracts between temporary staffing agencies and the companies to whom the agencies contract out their workers, in which companies promise not to offer permanent employment to any worker originally sent by the agency. Many temporary workers hope to attract a job offer from employers by accepting a temporary contract to work for them, unaware that a business-to-business contract to which they are not a party makes this impossible. Temp agencies should not be permitted to constrain the prospects of workers who seek permanent employment. No-poaching agreements also shape hiring practices of competing firms, who are willing to sacrifice their own ability to hire from their competition in order to retain more of their own workers and suppress wages. No-poaching agreements represent un-fair collusive restraints that reduce workers’ opportunities.


Recommendation 6

Bolster Worker Training and Education Pathways through Private-Sector Upskilling and a Strengthened Community College System

More workers should have opportunities for better careers, higher wages, and better lives. One way to create opportunity is to remove barriers to labor market participation (see Recommendation 5: Remove Regulations Preventing People from Participating in the Labor Market). Another is to increase opportunities for education and training.

The education system is responsible for training the next generation of workers for market participation and for democratic citizenship. In addition to K–12 schooling, this system includes a network of two- and four-year colleges, vocational education programs, and training by employers. In the second half of the twentieth century and the early twenty-first century, gains in four-year college degree attainment were particularly pronounced. The Commission respects and celebrates what universities contribute to the training of the nation’s workforce and the preparation of the nation’s citizenry for self-governance. As the costs of attendance continue to rise, we believe more needs to be done to make these institutions accessible for middle- and low-income students.

While the nation should offer a broad range of post–high school options suited to the objectives and needs of individual learners, the Commission has opted to focus on private-sector upskilling and partnerships with community colleges.79 Although many high school graduates go on to earn a four-year college degree, well more than half of young adults today do not, including roughly three-quarters of Black and Latino young people and almost 90 percent of Native American youth.80 Policy-makers, postsecondary administrators, and the private sector should focus on expanding pathways to opportunity and mobility that do not include four-year college. In particular, the Commission endorses the current trend of companies investing in training for their employees and adopting partnerships with community colleges.

Providing better opportunities for workers is not just a matter of increasing firms’ earning potential or workers’ wages. Creating realistic pathways to better jobs is central to preserving faith in the nation’s political and economic system.81 Many workers—especially those without a post–high school degree or in communities left out of the wealth generated by new technologies—are angry or frustrated with a perceived lack of opportunities. Some have dropped out of the workforce entirely.82 Training and post–high school education offer a path back into the labor market for those who have dropped out. They provide a road to better opportunities for those who feel stuck. And they can increase the potential of a new generation of workers seeking a career path.

Three people who are wearing protective goggles work on the front of an airplane that is red and white. Two are holding tools while one is looking at the plane.
Erin, Connor, and Nathan, first-year students at Pennsylvania College of Technology (Penn College), practice removing and reinstalling an airplane engine for their degree in aviation maintenance technology, in Montoursville, Pennsylvania. Penn College’s program is informally considered a feeder program for employment for regional aviation companies. Photo by Caroline Gutman.

Private-Sector Upskilling

The private sector has a role to play in facilitating pathways to higher-paying jobs for low- and middle-income workers. Employer contributions to training programs, tuition subsidies, and other educational benefits have increased in recent decades, amounting to as much as $177 billion spent on formal training and $28 billion on tuition benefits per year, as of 2015.83 Nonetheless, many employers do not contribute sufficiently to upskilling their employees. More should do so.

The benefits to workers from upskilling programs can be substantial. A 2021 study of Walmart’s Live Better U—through which the company pays tuition and expenses for employees pursuing higher education—found that workers who completed the program were almost twice as likely to be promoted. Another 2021 study found that those who participated in an upskilling program were more satisfied with their pay, their job security, their health and safety on the job, the predictability of their hours, and other aspects of their work life.84

Many workers cannot afford to pay for their own education and training, or to miss a significant number of work hours to complete an upskilling program. One limitation of current programs is that many firms expect employees to advance their education on their own time or out of their own pockets—or, if the firms pay for training upfront, they use this investment to keep workers in their current positions, requiring workers to repay training costs if they quit.85

Companies themselves stand to benefit from investments in workers’ education. A study of health care provider Cigna’s 2012–2014 tuition reimbursement program found that participants were more likely to stay with the company. As a result, for every $1 the company invested in the program, it saved $1.29 in costs associated with hiring and talent management—an amount that does not even include the tax deduction the company took for reimbursing employee tuition.86 At Walmart, even if they did not complete the program, Live Better U participants were less likely to leave the company, and they saw a 10 percentage point increase in their performance ratings. These trends were generally consistent across gender and racial groups. The programs also help attract talent: one-quarter of applicants to hourly roles with the Walt Disney Company cited the company’s upskilling program, Disney Aspire, as their primary reason for applying.87

One concern about upskilling programs is that workers’ training will be firm-specific and will effectively lock them into their current employment. But the training and education that companies provide are generally transferable. As a result, employers may fear that they cannot afford to provide training or education if participants use their new credentials to get jobs with different firms. However, in a 2022 study in which two-thirds of workers said they wanted a new role, over half hoped it would be at their current company, suggesting that many workers seeking upskilling want to employ their new skills and expand their earnings and potential with their current employer.88 Instead of worrying whether they can provide training, employers should ask themselves if they can afford not to. And if firms prove unwilling to provide these benefits to workers, the nonprofit sector should help workers attain the skills that will help them secure better-paying and more rewarding work.

The Commission also urges companies to invest in the civic lives of their employees: providing paid time off not only to vote and serve on juries, but also to volunteer in their communities. While the Commission supports encouraging greater participation in civic and individual life made possible by employers, we do not endorse any arrangement in which employers activate workers’ political voice for a specific candidate or partisan cause.

Ultimately what is good for workers can be good for business, for the economy, and for American society. The Commission encourages employers to compete with one another to provide the best pathways to good jobs and better lives for their employees.

Community College Pathways

Community colleges are the main public infrastructure in the United States for connecting high school graduates who need opportunities to the new roles created by today’s fast-changing economy. There are currently 1,383 community colleges in the United States, with a total enrollment of 8.9 million students, almost 60 percent of whom are women.89 Half of all Latino and Native American students and 40 percent of Black students in the higher education system are enrolled at a community college. Thirty percent of community college students are the first member of their family to pursue postsecondary education.90

Compared with students at four-year institutions, community college students have significantly lower completion rates, higher rates of loan default, and significantly lower average income ten years post entry.91 These trends help explain why, between 2012 and 2022, enrollment at two-year public institutions declined by 33 percent, or 2.2 million students.92 Other reasons account for this drop as well, particularly the COVID-19 pandemic. Current and former community college students have also noted the unclear pathways to graduation and the difficulties in transferring credits to four-year institutions. Roughly 30 percent of community college students transfer to four-year institutions but, as of 2014, almost 40 percent of students were not able to transfer a single credit to their new school.93 In addition to difficulty transferring credits, community college students also face nonacademic responsibilities that serve as barriers to graduation: 66 percent of community college students attend school part time, 16 percent are single parents, and two-thirds have jobs. One-third work full time while in school.94

A person with their hair in a ponytail, wearing glasses, clicking on her laptop.
Lenis, twenty-five years old, started to learn how to code during the pandemic. In 2017, she experienced homelessness, fell into postpartum depression, and was unable to work for two years. Living paycheck to paycheck, she was working two jobs when she found out about a coding program based in California’s Central Valley that helps support marginalized communities. She was awarded a one-year apprenticeship that will prepare her for a career as a web developer. Photo by Adam Perez.

The Commission believes private-sector firms should provide more apprenticeship programs for community college students to enhance the ability of these institutions to advance the mobility of their students. In 2022, plumbers, electricians, nurses, and iron and steel workers all averaged above the mean national income. All these are jobs done by community college graduates, and many of them currently face national shortages and will be increasingly in demand as the nation addresses the ongoing effects of climate change.95 Partnerships between local employers and community colleges represent meaningful opportunities for paid experiential learning, firm- or field-specific training, and concrete pathways to these types of good jobs. When firms do not have the capacity to create these partnerships, community colleges should endeavor to identify possible firms with which to collaborate. For example, Ivy Tech Community College in South Bend, Indiana, partnered with Beacon Hospital System to establish the Beacon Scholar Program to combat local nursing shortages. The program funds tuition, books, and living expenses for seventy-five students, with a guaranteed placement at Beacon Health upon graduation.96 The Commission supports scaling up partnerships like these: finding new ways to connect community colleges to local employers and increasing the colleges’ capacity to train more students. Expanding partnerships is especially fruitful because doing so would be simpler than creating a new, separate apprenticeship and training program for workers who decide not to pursue a four-year degree.

The Commission also encourages community colleges to provide more resources to help students overcome obstacles to graduation, including emergency financial aid, transportation assistance, and counseling and mental health services. Though potentially costly and requiring additional funding from the private sector, nonprofits, and federal, state, and local governments—which provide over half of community colleges’ funding—these programs are vital for student success. Institutions should also offer information to students about how to access childcare and other types of social support. A growing trend on community college campuses is the creation of student services offices. Such offices need more resources, and community colleges should incorporate them prominently into student orientation. Ideally, institutions should create one-stop offices that provide both academic and social services. More generally, community colleges should examine their curriculum pathways and advising services to ensure that students have clear, accessible routes to their next step, whether it is a transfer to a four-year institution or a career. Community colleges should check in with students frequently to ensure they are on track for their desired path.

Reforming community colleges in these ways would help these vital institutions better serve as engines of upward mobility. The further adoption of private-sector partnerships and reforms to student services will help students, especially those from historically marginalized backgrounds, as well as businesses and the economy.


Recommendation 7

Extend to Black World War II Veterans and Their Descendants the Housing and Education Benefits They Were Denied under the 1944 GI Bill

When white and Black servicemembers returned from the European and Pacific theaters at the end of World War II, they came home to two starkly different Americas. Jim Crow reigned supreme in much of the country, and even outside the South, racial discrimination was routine in policing, housing, employment, education, and other areas of American life. These circumstances had dramatic consequences for the returning GIs, whose economic fortunes diverged dramatically along lines of race. The 1944 GI Bill provided veterans with college tuition assistance, housing assistance, employment benefits, and access to capital to start businesses or purchase homes. Crucially, however, the benefits were administered at the state level, where segregation put Black veterans at a discriminatory disadvantage.

As a result, especially in the South, Black GIs were systemically and intentionally excluded from the programs that helped build the midcentury middle class. While 1.2 million Black troops fought in World War II (8 percent of the total armed forces), very few Black veterans of that era were able to obtain GI benefits.97

It is time to repay these veterans and their families for their service. The GI Bill served as a springboard that helped white veterans and their families accumulate wealth, which they passed on to successive generations. Black veterans, and thereby their descendants today, did not receive equivalent benefits. One study found that Black veterans received only 40 percent of the benefits white veterans received.98 Many white veterans used their benefits to purchase suburban homes that functioned as solid investments and enabled them to pass wealth on to their descendants. African American veterans who fought fascism abroad and faced discrimination at home were often unable to access housing assistance at all. And when they were able to secure home loans, redlining often confined those Black veterans to less well-off neighborhoods, where their homes did not grow in value nearly as much over time. Additionally, while white GIs could get professional and educational credentials that secured their place in the growing white-collar economy, many Black veterans were not able to access these opportunities. Those who were able to utilize their benefits were pushed into Historically Black Colleges and Universities, which provided important opportunities but, in many cases, did not have professional schools. Moreover, veterans’ educational benefits were often used for training in the segregated trades—strictly off-limits to Black Americans. As a result, Black GIs did not have the same opportunities as whites to become doctors, lawyers, or trade workers such as electricians, builders, and plumbers.

“The fastest way to secure economic stability in this country is through home ownership. So [Black Americans] could fight for this country, go to World War II like my family members did, get a GI Bill and you can go to school with it, but because of redlining, which was coupled with FHA loans, we couldn’t buy homes in communities that were appreciating. And so that was very systemic, very subtle, but that was designed to give a group of people a real head start. We have to acknowledge that.”

— Alex, Pastor and African American Community Leader, Wisconsin

Listen to this excerpt from our session with Alex.

This exclusion has had lasting effects. GI Bill benefits from service in World War II led to an annual average increase in income of $16,000 for white veterans but had no effect for Black veterans. By 1993, the wealth gap between Black and white World War II veterans ($101,850) was double the gap between Black and white nonveterans ($50,100). Some families still benefit from the compounded interest of the government beneficence from eighty years ago; others have seen very little if any benefit.99

The Commission recommends extending to surviving Black World War II veterans and their direct descendants the housing and education benefits denied under the 1944 GI Bill. Veterans and their descendants could get access to the VA Loan Guaranty Program, as well as post-9/11 GI Bill educational assistance provisions, which grant financial assistance for school and job training. This recommendation is consistent with how veterans’ benefits are commonly extended today (that is, to veterans and their descendants). The Commission also supports further inquiry into racial and gender inequities in the distribution of benefits among contemporary veterans.

The Commission recognizes the commendable role that the U.S. military has played in accelerating economic opportunity and equal opportunity within its ranks and across American society. The GI Bill in 1944 expanded the middle class. Four years later, President Truman’s executive order desegregating the military helped pave the way for the Supreme Court to declare segregation in America’s schools unconstitutional in 1954.100 America’s armed services have set the pace for turning the nation into a multiracial democracy. By implementing the Commission’s recommendation and extending benefits long denied to Black veterans and their families, the nation could fulfill the original promise of the GI Bill: a repayment of military service with meaningful opportunity for economic advancement. Extending these benefits to Black World War II veterans and their descendants would rectify a highly consequential racial injustice, address current and ongoing economic disparities, and improve the lives and livelihoods of Black veterans and their families.


Recommendation 8

Expand Broadband Connectivity for Rural, Tribal, and Underserved Urban Areas

Access to high-quality, affordable broadband is a necessity for participation in the nation’s economy and democracy. The internet is how Americans buy and sell things, apply for jobs and rental housing, and get medical care, school assignments, news, and other essential resources. It is also where people engage in the political process, sharing their personal views, interacting with elected officials, and shaping the nation’s democratic culture. While broadband access does not guarantee the vitality of a community, the lack of it guarantees substandard outcomes across all measures, from health and education to civic participation and economic opportunity.

According to the National Broadband Map, an estimated 42.8 million Americans lack broadband access entirely—most of them in rural, tribal, and underserved urban areas.101 Access to broadband is vital to the economic health of these communities. Recent studies have found that the availability of broadband increases the market value of rural homes and raises the likelihood of business investment in rural areas. Increasing the availability of reliable broadband provides an avenue for spreading opportunity into communities where economic progress has stalled over the last few decades.102

New funding from the federal government promises to end the digital divide in the United States once and for all by allocating more than $42 billion to expand internet access to areas without it and to increase the reliability and speed of the internet in places that need it the most.103 Yet even with this new infusion of funding, millions of Americans will still face barriers to achieving high-quality, affordable service due to ongoing flaws with how broadband access is measured and how the broadband market is structured.

In particular, determinations about broadband availability are based on Federal Communications Commission (FCC) maps that do not accurately reflect the scope of the digital divide. Most of the FCC’s data are reported by providers rather than consumers. The FCC allows states and local communities to submit challenges to the current map, but even that process requires an internet connection.104 And it is unlikely that maps will be updated before allocations of federal broadband funding are made. The Commission recommends that the FCC continuously revisit broadband maps and solicit public feedback on the data and its data collection methods.

“By the time we figure out how to be successful in this economy, which is hard enough, a whole humongous segment of the rest of the economy is someplace else. And I’m not sure how we ever catch up if we don’t even have internet. . . . When I went to visit my family in Oklahoma as a teenager, he had an outhouse, and that was such a foreign concept. None of us can imagine in Chicago, using an outhouse, but not having internet is the equivalent of still using an outhouse.”

— Ghian, Nonprofit President and CEO, Illinois

In 2017, the FCC eliminated the Title II classification of the internet, which had made high-speed internet service a public utility. This change resulted in the repeal of net neutrality rules that had required internet providers to offer equal access to all online information without additional cost. The rollback of net neutrality has allowed internet providers to prioritize, slow down, charge additional fees for, or even block the flow of internet content. Coupled with the lack of competition among internet service providers, broadband companies can artificially drive-up prices for access to different services.

The FCC is directed by five commissioners who have significant sway over how Americans communicate and receive information. At the time of this writing and since 2021, the FCC has been missing a fifth commissioner and has therefore been unable to vote on key issues like net neutrality. The result is that individual households and small business owners often pay higher prices for internet access based on where they live. This makes affordability a significant barrier to broadband for many Americans, especially in rural areas and on tribal lands. Pandemic-era broadband subsidy programs like the FCC’s Affordable Connectivity Program made a major difference but are due to sunset in 2024.105

To address the market structures that affect affordability, the Commission recommends the following:

  • Restore the FCC to its full complement of commissioners and maintain this full complement so it can address issues that affect consumers, particularly members of marginalized populations.
  • Make permanent the pandemic-era broadband benefit programs for low-income families.
  • Restore net neutrality rules so that small rural and tribal businesses can compete in the marketplace.
  • Increase competition among internet service providers by removing state policy barriers to municipal and small internet service providers.

Finally, while billions of dollars are designated for broadband adoption and affordability, there is little funding devoted to digital literacy projects in the United States. For economic development, job growth, educational opportunities, disability access, telehealth, and much more, the nation needs its communities to have broadband and its citizens to have digital skills. People do not just need access to the internet. They need to know how to use it. The Commission supports investments in digital inclusion programs to enable more Americans to take full advantage of these technologies.


Recommendation 9

Allow States or Municipalities to Sponsor Immigrants to Boost Their Economies (Community Partnership Visas)

The United States is a nation of immigrants, and it needs to remain one in order to compete economically. In addition to enhancing the nation’s cultural diversity, immigrants create roughly one-quarter of new businesses and help address worker shortages, particularly in industries such as manufacturing, construction, agriculture, and health care. Immigrants spend an estimated $1.3 trillion every year and contribute $492 billion in local, state, and federal taxes.106

A green and white house sits below powerlines. Green trees are behind and in front of the house.
A Crown Castle telecommunications base station in Third Ward, Houston, Texas. Photo by Cindy Elizabeth.

Meanwhile, for states, tribes, and municipalities in many parts of the country, the loss of prime-age workers has meant shortages in critical jobs as well as falling productivity, fewer start-ups, stagnant wages and real-estate prices, and strained local government finances.

To address these issues, the Commission recommends the creation of what we call a Community Partnership Visa (CPV). Our proposal would empower states, tribes, or municipalities to apply for immigration visas through the federal government—or to issue visas directly. Many of the specifics about the design of CPVs should be left up to the communities themselves. Each community, for instance, should determine the skill level of the immigrants it wants to invite. Some may see a need for highly skilled, highly educated workers, while others—aging communities, for example—might seek workers to bolster the elder-care workforce.107

The experience of Ohio—a state with many declining-population counties and communities—shows that the idea has promise. Despite immigrants making up only 5.7 percent of the state’s population, they constitute 12.9 percent of its science, technology, engineering, and mathematics workforce.108 From 2000 to 2015, the number of immigrant entrepreneurs in the Great Lakes region grew by 120,000, while the rate of U.S.-born self-employed entrepreneurs actually declined.109 Community Partnership Visas would allow Ohio and other states to request more immigrants to address the needs in their communities. In early 2023, Republican governors from Utah and Indiana advocated for state authority to sponsor immigrants in order to help fill job vacancies.110

The Commission encourages private-sector involvement in determining the specific character of each community’s CPV. By collaborating with local or state governments, businesses grappling with labor shortages and skill gaps can invite new immigrants to bolster their workforce and the local economy.

An immigrant arriving on a CPV would be required to find and maintain a job in their host community. The Commission is not in favor of a program that would bring in temporary workers to be used for their labor and then removed from the community or the country; such arrangements relegate immigrant workers to second-class status and can result in exploitation.

Communities should be involved in determining many aspects of their particular visa programs. Some elements, though, should be decided at the federal level to protect recipients and to ensure that states and municipalities use the visas appropriately. In particular, further analysis is needed to determine some elements of the program, such as recipients’ residency status, the visa’s minimum timespan, whether family members should be included, and how to allay undue competition the program could generate for American-born workers. Additionally, federal oversight would help ensure that CPVs are not used to reduce the power of workers by artificially creating loose labor markets. Any state or municipality found to be misusing visas, or one that permits discrimination against immigrants, should face penalties, such as the loss of future visa allocations.

The CPV is not intended to reform or replace national immigration policy on its own. Rather, it represents a new tool through which communities in all corners of the country can address critical personnel shortfalls, promote business dynamism, and help maintain America’s openness to immigrants.