Advancing Work as a Cure to Poverty

  • Prosperity
  • 1996

When Dave Phillips reached his mid-50s as managing director of a large accounting firm, he retired early and joined his wife Liane in attacking poverty in his home town of Cincinnati, Ohio. In 1996 they launched a nonprofit called Cincinnati Works, built on a carefully researched model of the most effective ways to move people from poverty into work and then self-sufficiency free of public assistance. In addition to providing its “members” with practical things like job training, child care, and transportation help, CW offers specialty services to individuals with difficult backgrounds—including behavioral counseling, legal advocacy, mentoring, chaplain services, and an anti-violence program. A study by the University of Cincinnati concluded that being a CW member reduced an individual’s probability of felony indictment by almost 50 percent.

CW starts members in a required class which teaches work ethics, problem solving, personal budgeting, life values, self-confidence, employer expectations, and the techniques of applying and interviewing for jobs. “Soft skills and the overall culture of poverty is a big part of the challenge,” states president Peggy Zink. Then the nonprofit offers intensive job-search and placement help. After a member lands a job, CW staff stay in touch with both the worker and the employer for at least one year to help ensure job retention. “One Job, One Year” and “Call Before You Quit” blare posters in the group headquarters.

The fourth step in the CW process is advancement. Once the member has held the same job for a year, staffers create a plan to improve skills, education, or behavior such that the member can increase his or her earning power, with the goal being 200 percent of the poverty level, with health benefits. Between 70 and 80 percent of Cincinnati Works members retain their job for at least a year (much better than government job-training programs) and the average hourly pay of members is two dollars higher than the state minimum wage.

In addition to helping the jobless and underemployed, Cincinnati Works has been lauded by the Harvard Business Review for providing employers with a valuable source of stable entry-level workers—reducing the job turnover of some companies by half. And CW’s services are provided entirely free to both individuals and employers. The privately funded nonprofit relies on 106 volunteers plus donors who cover the salaries of 27 employees. The program has been studied widely and replicated in Texas, Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio, and other places.