Tampa Tribune (Florida)
By: Jeffrey Faulkner
December 27, 2011
Addressing the barriers to employment
The U.S. Census Bureau's release of 2010 data on income, poverty and health insurance in the United States paints a bleak picture of America's economic realities. According to the data, the poverty rate rose to 15.1 percent, its highest level since 1993. That translates to 42.6 million people living below the poverty line. The ranks of the underemployed also have grown, with those employed part-time for economic reasons rising from 8.4 million to 8.8 million.
To better understand why the job market hasn't improved, policymakers and economists are increasingly looking to the field of behavioral economics to determine the social, cognitive and emotional factors that lead to unemployment.
Their findings suggest that many hard-to-place workers experience barriers to employment that limit their access to jobs, even during times when jobs are plentiful.
Imagine, for instance, something as simple as the importance of owning a vehicle. Without a car, getting to and from work, grocery shopping or accessing day care for children can be an insurmountable challenge. A study from the Brookings Institution found that even in metropolitan regions, only one-quarter of jobs in low- and middle-skill industries are accessible via public transit, as compared to one-third of jobs in high-skill industries. For many rural families, public transit is non-existent.
Other barriers include poor credit, lack of a bank account and other financial building blocks to obtaining and maintaining jobs. These findings led to the development of a unique community development program that provides small, low-interest loans and credit repair guidance to working poor families. Known as Ways to Work, the organization has helped more than 27,000 families improve their financial situation through more than $50 million in loan funds used for a variety of work-related purposes, including purchasing a vehicle.
More than 90 percent of program participants report that their car loan helped them maintain or improve their employment situation, with 75 percent reporting an increase in earnings, 67 percent opening a bank account and 80 percent moving their children to more appropriate childcare providers.
In Florida, Ways to Work is part of a statewide collaboration known as The Florida Prosperity Partnership (FPP). It is made up of more than 140 organizations providing a range of services, including low-cost car loans, financial literacy programs, money management training, free income tax preparation -- all offered to promote financial stability and job retention for low-to-moderate income Floridians.
Malekia McKinney, a Ways to Work participant from St. Petersburg, explains the impact the program had on her: "I found myself in a situation where I was single, taking care of four kids (who I recently adopted), and caring for my mother, who was terminally ill. I was under pressure because I had limited income and no car to get around to take care of all the necessities. Ways to Work not only provided me with strategies for rebuilding my credit and managing my budget, but they also helped me to finance a vehicle that my family could fit in safely and get everywhere we needed to go. Having transportation has opened doors that led me to more income so that I can better provide for my family and me."
A public-private partnership, Ways to Work typically receives more than three-quarters of its funding from the private sector and offers a strong return on investment in helping families move off public assistance and into higher paying tax brackets, as well as stimulating local economies through automobile and other purchases to address family needs.
Ways to Work currently operates programs in St. Petersburg, Jacksonville and Miami-Dade. The St. Petersburg program is in the process of expanding to serve Tampa residents, and new Ways to Work programs are under development in Orlando, Tallahassee and Broward County.
A two-year partnership and $2 million national grant investment by The Walmart Foundation is helping Ways to Work to expand its programs across the state and nationwide. This is particularly vital for Florida since it is one of the states hardest hit by the mortgage foreclosure crisis and unemployment. Additional state or federal funding would serve as a multiplier, helping grow Ways to Work to additional regions, particularly in more rural areas where the need is greatest.
Improving the American economy over the long term will require not only creating new jobs, but also identifying and employing strategies to help those who are underemployed maintain and improve their job status. Ways to Work is an example of a community-based program that offers a hand up, not a hand out. It is the kind of support Florida's families need to have greater access to economic opportunity and prosperity and the kind of low-cost program that lawmakers can embrace to help grow the work force without increasing the deficit.
Jeffrey E. Faulkner is the president of Ways to Work Inc., based in Milwaukee. Michelle Gilliard, Ph.D., is a senior director at The Walmart Foundation and co-chair of the National Advisory Council for Ways to Work.