We Can Do Better for Vulnerable Americans than Just a Minimum to Live On

Sixty years ago, more than 200,000 people traveled to our nation’s capital to participate in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963. It was one of the most pivotal moments in the history of our civil rights movement, although many people may only remember it as the first time we heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech.  

Earlier this week, President Joe Biden referenced this anniversary in his op-ed for The Washington Post on how his administration’s economic policies—namely spending billions in taxpayer dollars—is helping Americans, specifically Black Americans, continue to march toward King’s dream.  

However, the only upward trend most Americans have seen lately is the ever-increasing cost of rent, gas and groceries. For the last two years, households have been strained by elevated prices on food, transportation and shelter. Rent prices are up 7.8% from one year prior. Credit card debt surpassed the $1 trillion mark for the first time on record, middle-aged workers are drawing down on their retirement funds at an alarming rate and demands from food banks have surged to pandemic levels.  

A high cost of living is eroding Americans’ quality of life. And these hardships are even deeper for those at the bottom of the economic ladder. Nearly half of low-income adults could not pay some of their bills if faced with an unexpected $400 expense.  

Unlike government bureaucrats, who continue to propose band-aids for financially crushing inflation—like the idea of a $17 federal minimum wage—philanthropy recognizes that economic security is gained through economic mobility. We should not settle for making life at the bottom livable. Instead, we should expand ladders of opportunity for vulnerable youth and adults to climb up.  

Philanthropy and government are trying to help households manage the hardships of sustained high inflation. Yet, there must be a greater commitment to workforce development and knocking down the barriers to work, especially in light of technology’s expected future impacts on the workforce. 

Many income-generating opportunities are closed off to those without skills or education–a problem that will only worsen. Low-wage jobs are not meant to provide any long-term income growth or job security. Brookings Institute finds that over the past decade, these jobs have grown “stickier” with only 43% of low-wage workers leaving low-wage occupations.  

Companies are accelerating automation and deploying artificial intelligence which will shrink the pool of low-wage jobs. Over half of fast-food restaurant operators expect the deployment of automation and tech to help address labor shortages this year. 

Workforce development programs deliver the benefits of training workers to gain skills and employment quickly, envisioning career pathways in the future and addressing vexing labor shortages across industries.  

NPower is a national example. NPower is a nonprofit that helps individuals build IT skills and gain valuable certifications in areas like cybersecurity, coding and cloud computing. It also provides a range of social service supports that address the non-employment hurdles to obtaining work from housing referrals to travel assistance.  

By placing a particular focus on underrepresented communities, they are diversifying the tech workforce while connecting individuals to well-paying digital careers. Because of NPower, a young college dropout working minimum wage jobs is now a tech developer on a path to becoming a CEO. A single mother went from living in a domestic violence shelter to becoming a tech consultant for a leading digital strategy company. 

Just as the donor community devotes grantmaking to building human capital along with support services, lawmakers should consider how federal policymaking impacts such programs at the state and local levels. Bipartisan federal efforts to expand apprenticeships and workforce development programs may be well-intentioned, but can be outdated or unresponsive to the rapid changes in the economy and industry.  

Employer-led local initiatives offer solutions that address disparate on-the-ground needs more effectively than some public programs. Government can be a partner but does not have to drive top-down initiatives when there are viable free-market solutions.  

Take, for example, Jobs for America’s Graduates (JAG), which operates in 1,500 locations across 40 states. For 40 years, JAG has connected 1.5 million young people to opportunities and aided their transition from secondary education into the workforce by collaborating with funders, government, business and community organizations. This model allows local employers to address labor shortages and build workforces from untapped local talent. Students gain the skills and tools to build careers and pursue their unique American dream

Pathways to opportunity exist. Instead of making bottom pay more livable, we should build up human capital to make upward mobility achievable.  

Patrice Onwuka is an adjunct senior fellow at Philanthropy Roundtable and director of the Center for Economic Opportunity at Independent Women’s Forum.  

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