Why Work Is the Best Charity for the Poor

Poverty is one part economics, one part psychology—work helps both

The U.S. is the richest nation in history. To see members of our society languishing in poverty, therefore, is distressing. Many of our official responses to low income, unfortunately, offer only short-term help—and even make problems worse in the long run. Government offers checks and food stamps. Charity offers hot meals and shelter and donated goods. These efforts meet temporary needs. But they seldom lead to lasting improvements in the lives of strugglers, and short-term aid can become a trap.

What if we’re looking in the wrong place for cures to poverty? If we search out what it is that banishes need and fills wants for most people, the answer is obvious: Work. That is the poverty solution that happens all around us, every day. That’s why The Philanthropy ­Roundtable has just created a guidebook to help charitable providers lead people who are currently living at the economic margins into mainstream success and happiness through work.

Of course, work is much more than just a mechanism for reducing poverty. More than any other nation on Earth, the United States has a rich tradition of insisting that hard work is ennobling. In our country, even the most mundane occupations have been viewed as bringing honor to the laborer. And this wholehearted embrace of work has helped every succeeding generation of Americans enjoy a brighter economic future than the one before it.

These twin benefits of the American work ethic—material betterment and a sense of personal value—have sometimes been lost sight of in recent years and are no longer experienced by all of our citizens. Amid new ideas of entitlement, guaranteed outcomes, and expanded notions of retirement and disability, there are large and growing pockets where the virtues of work are no longer understood or appreciated, or where residents have become entangled in dribbling payment programs that make active employment almost impossible. Moreover, specific jobs used as steppingstones by many people in the past have disappeared because of technological change or economic globalism. There are spatial mismatches, skill gaps, and missing habits, attitudes, and experiences that separate workers from work.

Of the 26 million persons of working age (18-64) who fell below the poverty line in 2013, nearly two thirds didn’t hold a job for even one week during the year. So simply going to work is the first step they (and their dependents) most need. Among the 11 million prime-age persons who were poor though they did work, some lacked the requisite skills to support themselves, but most put in too few hours to sustain a household.

Diligent work is not something innately wired into human beings. It must be taught, cultivated, and practiced. It is a skill set, like any other, that must be pursued. Offering employment tools and productive attitudes toward work and self-support is a fertile field for donors.

Good charitable organizations do a better job at linking the disadvantaged with careers than government agencies. They are more personal and less bureaucratic. They have no guaranteed budgets and only survive if they produce results. They often look far beyond initial job offers to seek ways of life that will be durable for the people they help.

Unlike government agencies, private civil-society groups are free to address issues of character, personal behavior, virtue, and habit without risking a lawsuit. Many of these organizations bring moral insights to their job training as well as community values and faith angles, knowing that they have no coercive powers over clients who voluntarily choose to participate. Their offerings are often about a renewed life, a second chance, days of purpose—not just a job.

In our new guidebook we highlight scores of local nonprofits that have strong records of helping marginal populations become happily employed. We describe what succeeds and what doesn’t when it comes to producing results with populations that particularly struggle with work: single mothers on assistance, released prisoners, the homeless, substance abusers, the disabled, the unskilled, and disconnected youth.

These are some of the hardest-to-reach populations in the U.S. right now. But we outline nonprofit programs that succeed with each of them. Such charities offer donors a chance to set major life improvements in motion, altering entire family trees for the better.

Benefits of a work-filled life

Everyone needs income to survive, but meaningful work is about far more than the paycheck. Work establishes the daily rhythms of life. It dictates when we rise from bed, when we eat our meals, how we schedule our weeks, how we interact with our families. Work provides important structure for our lives.

Work also forms the backbone of much of our social interaction. This has become increasingly true in recent decades as Americans have slid away from many forms of traditional community and civic participation, leaving the workplace as their primary locale of social engagement.

“A job gives you a sense of purpose for waking up every day,” says Sandy Schultz, CEO of the WorkFaith ­Connection, an organization based in Houston, Texas. “Having a job helps people to see that they are valuable. It’s hugely significant.” Peter Droege, ­executive director of the ­addiction-recovery program Step 13, says, “We’re much more than what we do for a living, but the fact remains that work is ennobling.”

Everyone benefits from honest work—not just the employee who gets paid, not just his company that gains value. Diligent work allows many people to profit from the services, products, ideas, or advancements produced. Good work is built around solving the problems of others and reaping a reward for doing so, and thus helps society as a whole.

For many, work is a cause beyond themselves, even a life calling. This can be as true for simple jobs as for complex ones. Work gives everyone a chance to put a proud personal stamp on the world.

When they are separated from work, the poor lose more than just money for food, shelter, and clothing. They suffer deficits of purpose, emotional ­well-being, and social connection. They get cut off from clearly defined goals and aspirations. They lose a prime means of generating and feeling respect from others. These things can’t be compensated for by government income transfers or charitable gifts. This itch must be scratched by devoting oneself to productive, fulfilling labor. Philanthropists can play a key role in making this happen.

Authors Steve Corbett and Brian ­Fikkert note that what outside observers believe poor people need and what poor people themselves actually want are often different. Outsiders tend “to emphasize a lack of material things such as food, money…medicine, housing, etc.” Meanwhile, poor people often describe their condition “in more psychological and social terms…. in terms of shame, inferiority, powerlessness, humiliation, fear, hopelessness, depression, social isolation, and voicelessness.”

Carla Javits, president of the ­California-based venture-philanthropy fund REDF, which specializes in supporting work for the most difficult-to-reach populations, such as the homeless and at-risk youth, has encountered this herself: “When you ask the people we’re helping why they are so excited to have a job, you’d think the first thing they would say is the paycheck—because we’re talking about people who are extremely low-income. Yet they almost never give that as their first answer. It’s almost always dignity, self-respect, participation, team, and community….

“In the United States, we believe in the power of work. If you’re left out of that, you feel like you’re left out of the whole society. Many people who have fallen out of mainstream society come to a moment in their life when they’re ready to make major personal changes to get back in and be part of that American dream. A job is the ticket back in—it’s your on-ramp back into the mainstream of society. Unfortunately, after you’ve been withdrawn from work for a while, it can sometimes be really tough to find a path to return.”

The struggle for donors is this: Too many poverty-alleviation efforts provide material relief without addressing these deeper issues. Even charitable organizations that place the impoverished in jobs sometimes end up providing only stopgap help because broader life changes are not achieved. An impossible family situation, creditors on your back, a lack of reliable transportation, no connection to social capital, few educational resources, lack of role models, lack of financial knowledge, a negative worldview—addressing these will make success much more likely. Too many of the impoverished are in survival mode rather than advancement mode. A charitable support structure can help solve or soften concerns that could otherwise get in the way of finding and holding a job.

Work builds an intangible quality of character that few other activities can: self-respect. Philanthropist and entrepreneur David Weekley identifies that as one of the distinguishing aspects of good work. “From what I’ve seen, giving people a hand up rather than a handout is the only way to create self-respect and permanent improvement in people’s lives, rather than temporary improvement.”

In emphasizing the long-term importance of work, it’s not our intention to dismiss or ignore charity work that provides immediate material relief to the poor—such as food pantries, rescue missions, and homeless shelters. After all, it’s hard to get a stable job when you’re hungry and don’t know where you will sleep that night. Many donors consider it a religious or moral imperative to supply relief in the face of sharp need.

“But it’s not either/or—teach a man to fish or give a man a fish,” says Hugh Whelchel, executive director of the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics. “If you try to teach a man to fish and he’s starving, then he’s going to eat the bait. So there has got to be this immediate relief where we help people get stabilized. But that’s got to be followed very quickly by a way to help him begin to use the gifts and opportunities that God has given him to provide for himself.”

Some common traits of excellent work programs

How does a donor move beyond stabilizing the poor into helping them become proudly self-reliant? Among the many successful charities profiled in our new book, there are some common traits. Here are eight characteristics that many effective work-bolstering charities share:

1. They focus on participants anxious to change their lives. People firmly set in a dependence mindset or in ­self-destructive behaviors will rarely be changed even by the best programs. There are plenty of strugglers hungry for dramatic change in their lives; find them and assist them in making the hard adjustments.

“We can help someone get a job who wants a job, regardless of their past. But we can’t make somebody want a job,” says Schultz. “If someone doesn’t want to be here and doesn’t want employment, there is little we can do for them.”

2. They offer practical training that fills a marketplace need. Training must prepare workers for actual jobs that are unfilled locally today, not imaginary future jobs. “The Achilles’ heel in workforce ­development has been insufficient focus on preparing people for real, existing work in our employer community, and sometimes a failure to be sure people are ready for those jobs,” says Javits.

3. They always think about what employers need. Improving an employer’s bottom line via productive workers, reduced training costs, and reduced turnover will bring job-offering companies flocking; they can’t hire strictly out of charity.

“Effective employment programs are like brokers,” explains Donn ­Weinberg of the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg ­Foundation. “Employers can’t find enough good people on their own, and they come to trust these programs to deliver a flow of reliable candidates. The reputation of the employment program is based on making sure that its training is relevant and works.”

4. They emphasize job retention and advancement. Employment-challenged populations—high-school dropouts, single mothers, minorities, etc.—experience significantly less job stability, retention, and movement up the ladder than other groups. Adroit training groups realize the gravity of this. They make job placements but don’t stop there—showing workers how to hold onto work, scout opportunities for advancement, and prepare themselves to step up.

“For many folks, it’s not just about getting a job. It’s about keeping a job over the long term,” says Maria Kim of the successful Cara program in ­Chicago. Incentives to ensure that graduates of workforce programs stay in touch are useful in this regard. The Women’s Bean Project—a social enterprise based in Denver—pays its graduates $50 to check in every six months. Today, the ­organization’s alumni follow-up rate is 80 percent, compared to an abysmal 20 percent when it simply said “please” without the financial enticement.

5. They recognize spiritual and ­psychological needs. Work involves a lot more than economics, particularly among struggling populations. One of the many reasons private nonprofits are better mechanisms for pulling disconnected individuals into the workforce is because they have greater freedom than government entities to work with the whole person—including spiritual, moral, and psychological dimensions, self-image, and character development. Agencies of the state cannot push people in these areas, but voluntary groups, varying to reflect the range of human needs, can pull levers that would be inappropriate for a government agency. They can apply insights of responsibility, right conduct, personal value, religious faith, and the like. The result: changed hearts, changed minds, changed behavior, changed ­outlooks on life.

6. They provide missing community and social structure. A community that supports strivers, elevates hard work and success, and redirects failure can make all the difference. Job strugglers often have fewer people and networks in their life they can fall back on. Nonprofit programs that offer consistent tough love can help in this area.

7. They often use models that produce revenue. Although not mandatory for success, a model that brings in revenue will make a program much more sustainable and expandable. Donors are attracted to nonprofits that have earnings, not only because that makes them stronger financially but because it is a market signal that their product is valued by customers willing to pay for it.

8. Many operate their own businesses. There are benefits beyond cash flow in operating a revenue-generating business under the nonprofit infrastructure. These ventures give strugglers a safe place to learn work skills, providing a valuable track record of employment that can then be taken to the next job opportunity. And they become laboratories where charities learn what really works and what doesn’t.

David Bass is author of Clearing Obstacles to Work: A Wise Giver’s Guide to Fostering Self-Reliance, published by The Philanthropy Roundtable.