Only 3 percent of full-time workers are living in poverty. Alas, work is in decline at present. In 1953, the portion of adult American men neither holding nor seeking a job was just 14 percent; today, that rate has more than doubled to 30 percent. Couple this trend with rising concerns about poverty and income inequality and it’s not surprising that philanthropists are re-examining ways to help connect struggling individuals to work.
At The Philanthropy Roundtable’s recent event “Getting America Back to Work,” donors discussed the importance—and challenges—of expanding work among the poor. Here are a few conclusions from some of today’s best philanthropic operators in this field:
Work is a family affair. Strategies designed to help low-income kids succeed in life frequently center on education: pre-K programs, after-school programs, college readiness. Often overlooked, however, is the key connection between adult work and children’s success. “If you actually want to help children, help the adults. Parents’ actions have the greatest impact on their children,” noted Donn Weinberg of the Weinberg Foundation. “Philanthropic investments in education are muted unless we acknowledge this reality. Work is the key.”
This tracks with the programs of StepUp Ministry, a workforce development and life-change nonprofit profiled at the conference. “Poverty is generational,” StepUp president Steve Swayne reminded the audience. “If you are not going after the mom and dad, you’re missing the boat. Four out of five African-American males are not living with their children and the birth mom. Dealing with that fracture and helping to restore families is critical.” If a father or mother comes to StepUp for assistance, the group requires his or her children to also enroll in complementary programs. They minister to the whole family.
Poverty is a mindset and a heart set. “It’s much more than a money issue. It’s an issue of the spirit,” stated Weinberg. Eric Weinheimer, former president of the Cara Program in Chicago and now the president of Donors Forum, agreed wholeheartedly. “It’s all about culture—the habits, the role models.... At Cara, we worked to create a culture of possibility. We do a lot of rituals and practices to introduce and reinforce a new way of thinking.”
StepUp Ministry does likewise. For example, its initial five-day Job Skills program is held in a different location each day. Why? It requires participants to plan how they will get to tomorrow’s meeting spot by consulting maps and bus schedules. A lack of planning characterizes the survival mindset, according to Swayne. Moving to an achievement outlook requires long-range consideration of actions and consequences.
“Work ethic and soft skills…the overall culture of poverty—they are all a big part of the challenge,” agreed Peggy Zink, president of Cincinnati Works. How can we help people move to the culture of middle class? Sometimes it takes successive failures in jobs to learn.”
Continuing engagement is crucial. Keeping a job can be just as challenging as getting a job for a poor person. As the glow of work wears off and the daily grind sets in, it’s easy to fall into old habits. Continuing reinforcement and positive engagement is essential for nonprofits that steer folks toward new independence.
Posters plastered throughout the Cincinnati Works training headquarters pitch two major storylines: “One Job, One Year” and “Call Before You Quit.” StepUp Ministry provides a Life Skills curriculum for those who have landed a job, designed to help the newly employed keep their eyes on the longer-term prize: job retention and advancement. The Life Learning Center in Covington, Kentucky, lead donor Bill Butler noted, builds long-term engagement with the workplace by emphasizing relationships and mutual support among workers.
The minimum wage hurts the hardest to employ. Conversations about entry-level work inevitably come around to minimum wages, often with the expectation that anyone helping the poor find jobs will be supportive of paying them more. All three of our expert practitioners, however, rallied against higher minimums.
“Increasing the minimum wage will reduce opportunity,” said Zink. “Our members typically get initial jobs that pay about $9.50 an hour, which is above the minimum. But we also work with several populations—such as foster kids aging out of the system, or ex-offenders—who are very hard to place. They have no work history and few marketable skills. They are the ones who get the minimum-wage jobs – jobs which we encourage them to take as transitional opportunities. If the wage was raised, some of the opportunities for these folks would be very limited, pushing them farther toward homelessness.”
Weinheimer noted, “Our average starting wage is about $11 per hour.” But Cara also operates three social enterprises for those who are hardest to employ. The enterprises are designed to give participants a chance to test out their skills, learn from their mistakes, and build a job history so they can eventually gain a job in the private sector. “As a business owner, the minimum-wage discussion is scary. We employ people that the market won’t hire. We pay them minimum wage. If we had to pay them more, we’d have to cut back.”
The criminal backgrounds of many of the clients are one of the biggest barriers to employment. “Eighty percent of those we serve,” said Swayne, “have a criminal background.” Raising the minimum wage can only hurt this population. As part of its longer-term strategy, StepUp has started an entrepreneurship program to train people to get around wage ceilings by employing themselves in their own businesses.
Philanthropists can make a difference. “This is an exciting area,” offered Weinberg as a closing observation. “In terms of knowing what difference you are making, it is probably an easier area than education. It’s hard to measure the impact of education grants. But if you change the life of one adult from dysfunctional to employed, you change their kids and those around them. This is an area where you can see immediate results, and get a lot of personal satisfaction.”