In April, President Trump signed an executive order requiring many Americans who get public benefits to join the workforce if they want to continue receiving assistance. The order, Reducing Poverty in America by Promoting Opportunity and Economic Mobility, was immediately decried by advocates for low-income people as an ineffective effort to reduce government aid.
The most-cited reason has been that most people getting social safety net supports such as Medicaid, SNAP (formerly known as food stamps), and housing subsidies, and other assistance already work at low-paying jobs. Of those who don’t, a majority of them face serious barriers to employment: criminal records, disabilities, homelessness, histories of substance abuse or domestic abuse. A simple demand for these people to find jobs likely will not land them livable-wage, long-term employment—especially in a tight labor market.
But more important, researchers say, social safety net programs need more money, not less, for a work requirement program to succeed.
In 2016, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities examined work requirements implemented by eight cities or counties around the country in the 1990s and found that they were largely ineffective. The requirements resulted in very little initial increase in employment, and virtually no impact five years later. More significantly, most of those people who had major barriers to employment never found jobs. Instead, they lost benefits and drifted further down the socioeconomic scale.
There were two notable exceptions, though.
Work requirement programs in Riverside County, California, and Portland, Oregon, did see real increases in employment that didn’t completely disappear over time. Why? Unlike the others, both places offered a combination of assistance to participants in the form of education, training, and help with job searches.
These programs weren’t cheap. The Riverside program cost $3,300 per person, and in Portland, $4,000. That kind of investment in low-income people certainly isn’t budgeted into Trump’s policy—the farm bill introduced last month includes roughly $360 per person annually for work programs affiliated with SNAP.
But the long-term, individualized approach to helping people with serious barriers to employment find fair-paying jobs has been proven to work.
“The combination is skills training and very intensive supports,” says LaDonna Pavetti, vice president for family income support policy at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities and author of the 2016 report. “Those are the kinds of programs you tend to see the more significant impacts with.”
There are a number of groups across the country dedicated to helping people find full-time jobs that use this formula—with results surpassing those in Riverside County or Portland. Many are nonprofits affiliated with “social enterprises,” or businesses with a mission. They train and hire from a specific pool of people aiming to overcome barriers to employment.
Last year, 450 people moved through the New York City program.
The Hope Program is a New York City organization that leads participants through a deliberate 10-week training process where they gain hands-on instruction and computer skills, along with supportive services. The course also provides them with soft skills, like how to comport themselves at a job. After the training is complete, employment specialists meet individually with job candidates and match them with businesses and nonprofits—or place them with Intervine, a subsidiary of Hope that installs and maintains green roofs.
Last year, 450 people moved through the New York City program; 75 percent of those graduated and found full-time jobs that start at an average of $13.50/hour. That success may be the result of Hope’s care in placing program graduates in jobs. “We cultivate employer partnerships from animal care to construction or janitorial,” says Toby Bloch, who leads Intervine. “We have employment specialists who meet with candidates one on one and figure out what they’d be good for.”
Other groups operate using a similar pattern. Orion Industries, near Seattle, runs a training initiative that helps participants gain skills and overcome some of their obstacles. They also assist them with finding decent-paying jobs, including with the company’s manufacturing firm, which supplies parts for Boeing. Last year, 175 people found jobs following graduation from the Orion program, making over $13/hour with benefits. The company is funded through business revenues, grants, and public dollars.
A similar Chicago organization called Cara has a lengthy training program that prepares people for white-collar positions; like the others, Cara also runs a business staffed by graduates of its program.
LaTanya Simpson went through Cara’s program in 2016. She’d been living at a shelter and was recovering from substance abuse. With a criminal record, Simpson struggled to find work. But Cara helped her to get her record expunged and eventually to find a job at a career center.
“Cara showed me how to think outside the box, [and] how to address the issues that would keep me from getting meaningful employment,” she says. Cara provided Simpson with a personal development specialist, who she says helped when she was “feeling overwhelmed.” Simpson is still working with Cara’s specialists to find a job with benefits, and her life has stabilized.
There are hundreds of these organizations around the country. Many are thriving, and it’s a model that seems to be working on all sides: Analysts estimate that the programs return over $2 for every dollar invested, in income taxes paid by participants who become gainfully employed and in reductions in public assistance.
Government funding for work training to accompany rollbacks in social services seems unlikely.
The catch is that the better results come with a higher price tag. At Cara and Orion, the programs cost about $5,000 per participant; the number is almost double that at The Hope Program. The businesses’ revenues offset some of the cost, and the rest is covered through private donations and local government grants.
There is little argument that the need for this kind of work training is enormous. It’s estimated that the number of Americans with criminal records—just one group among the hard-to-employ—is as high as 70 million.
Yet government funding for work training to accompany rollbacks in social services seems unlikely.
Back in 2009, the Corporation for National and Community Service—the federal agency that administers Americorps—committed an unprecedented sum toward this kind of work. The agency granted $7.5 million to The Roberts Enterprise Development Fund, a venture philanthropy fund that provides technical and financial assistance to social enterprises. In 2014, the award was increased to $17.5 million over five years. REDF and its partners made plans to greatly expand their work. But in the middle of last year, Congress quietly defunded the program.
REDF did not receive the last $10 million of the funding. Other federal funding under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act passed under President Obama is limited and currently at risk.
“We really believe the government should be backing this. It’s solving a huge problem that costs [the country] a lot of money and human potential,” said Carla Javits, REDF’s president and CEO. Plus, she adds, social enterprises’ missions—providing the supportive services that allow people to get to work—should have bipartisan appeal.
After all, says Javits, the idea that poor people don’t want to be employed is a serious misperception. “If our experience demonstrates anything, it’s that people are eager to work,” she says. Some of them just need a little extra help.
Amanda Abrams is a journalist living in Durham, NC. She's been freelancing for over 12 years and has contributed to The New York Times, Washington Post, the New Republic, Glamour, and many other publications. Before working as a journalist, Amanda was a policy wonk.