Work as Priority

In a Q&A, trustee Donn Weinberg describes why work takes priority in the Weinberg Foundation's anti-poverty efforts.

In 2005, the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation made workforce development a major priority in its giving. Today the foundation is one of the largest funders of work initiatives in the U.S. The Roundtable asked trustee Donn Weinberg why work takes priority in their anti-poverty efforts.

Philanthropy: Why is the Weinberg Foundation invested in workforce development?

Weinberg: We kept asking what type of investments make the greatest difference in reducing poverty. This led us to work. We also invested in education and basic human needs, but we discovered that employment is the major influence in all these areas. It’s not enough to address the immediate crises of homelessness, hunger, and sickness. We chose to focus on systemic solutions, chiefly a long-term career that makes the person self-supporting and a practice of saving to build assets and wealth so that no unexpected crisis can derail them.

Philanthropy: Besides basic sustenance, what are the benefits of working? 

Weinberg: The longer someone is out of work the more her self-esteem deteriorates and the less likely she is to return to work. She’ll start to doubt whether or not she is needed. She goes from a schedule organized around working to no schedule at all, with no particular reason to get up in the morning other than doctor’s appointments or other services. She can lose self-discipline quickly.

Some studies show this clearly among older adults as well as working-age people. After retirement, if a person doesn’t quickly fill his time with activities, he is at a far greater chance of deteriorating quickly, developing dementia, etc.Without working purpose, life becomes more chaotic. The lack of self-confidence and the chaos are serious barriers to a healthy life.

Philanthropy: Have you seen self-esteem improve because of employment?

Weinberg: Absolutely. We support one program (Cara in Chicago) that begins every day by asking participants to speak into a microphone, say one thing good that has happened to them recently, and sing a verse from any song they want. Usually at the beginning folks are very shy and lack self-confidence entirely. They’ve been told that they’re no good, can’t do anything, and are never going to be anything. It takes a lot of effort to speak into the microphone.

After a few weeks, you can’t take the microphone out of their hands. Part of this is because they’ve been working and gaining a sense of personal efficacy. They are building their ability, in their job, to believe in themselves. The statements you hear are “Wow, I have a job. I’m bringing home the bacon. My children look at me in a different way.” The academic studies show the same effect. Employment is not just an economic issue. It is a psychological and spiritual issue, as well.

Philanthropy: Do you think all people can be employed? Even the disabled?

Weinberg: For most people, a job is going to serve as the central organizing force in the household. I think people with disabilities are sold short all too often in our society. Most people born with disabilities want to be given the chance to show what they can do; they don’t focus on what they can’t do. They are dying to work and can be the best employees. Working is part of the therapy for them.

Of course if someone is not motivated to work, there is little you can do as a funder to help them. The person has to be motivated.  But sometimes, exposure to a good workforce program that gets people good jobs can show folks the “light at the end of the tunnel” that can build motivation.

Philanthropy: Why should someone invest in work to combat poverty?

Weinberg: There is a lot of satisfaction and impact—great heartwarming stories of success. People who are down-and-out are transformed. Holding a job is one of the easier areas to evaluate. You can know whether each organization you fund has made a difference or not. On cost-benefit analyses of these programs, the objective benefits of investing in work far outweigh the costs.

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