Painful Lessons About Poverty and Disability

One of America's crown jewels in enabling people to lift themselves out of poverty, the Federation Employment and Guidance Service (FEGS), which for generations enabled people with disabilities, immigrants and others at-risk, is closing its doors.
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One of America's crown jewels in enabling people to lift themselves out of poverty, the Federation Employment and Guidance Service (FEGS), which for generations enabled people with disabilities, immigrants and others at-risk, is closing its doors. It has 3,500 employees, 2,000 volunteers, 300 locations and an annual budget of $250 million. FEGS helps more than 12,000 people each day, and as many as 100,000 each year. Now leaders are working around the clock to find other agencies that can complete vital services so that those who are most vulnerable are not harmed.

As president of RespectAbility, a national non-profit working to enable people with disabilities to achieve the American dream, I have seen positive differences that FEGS made in empowering people to become independent. It will be missed.

Our group is working with governors in 33 states on the implementation of the new Federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. We testified recently on best practices for employment of people with disabilities before the newly established New York Employment First Commission. Most of the money for FEGS came from government contracts. But, with new budget formulas and regulations, the government frequently reimburses less for employment training and support services than it costs to deliver them. Its process also can shut out some of the organizations best qualified to deliver services.

Federal and State governments and non-profits invest billions in workforce development and other services for people with disabilities, with too much of it going to failed programs instead of evidence-based best practices. For example, money often goes toward day-habilitation programs and sheltered workshops, which can be glorified babysitters for adults with disabilities - if those people make any money at all, it is usually at "sub-minimum" wages. Too few investments are made in proven job training and support and transition services that can enable people with disabilities to become employed in competitive jobs at competitive wages. This is penny-wise and pound-foolish.

When people with disabilities don't have jobs, they often live on government benefits. In excess of $8 billion was spent by taxpayers in 2012 on Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits for people with disabilities in New York State. This does not include the even-larger sums for Medicare and Medicaid. Next year the SSDI Trust fund will have not have enough money to pay what it owes, so reform is urgently needed.

Fully 73.3% of persons without disabilities aged 18-64 in New York are employed. Tragically, however, only 32.2% of persons with disabilities age 18-64 in New York have jobs. In 2012, 601,407 people ages 18-64 in New York received SSDI or SSI benefits. That same year, vocational rehabilitation got only about 12,300 jobs for people with disabilities in New York State. New York can and must do better.

One of the best programs is Project SEARCH, which generates outstanding results for people with disabilities, employers, and taxpayers alike. Its interns, young people with disabilities who want to work, assist the regularly employed staff. Instead of spending their last year of high school in classrooms, the interns, many with developmental disabilities such as Autism or Down syndrome, do three internships at one worksite over the course of the year. Without programs like Project SEARCH, or other similar work-training programs and support, only 20% of young people with cognitive disabilities will get a job. But, thanks to these programs, up to 70% are finding gainful employment.

A young person with disabilities outside of the workforce will receive more $300,000 in direct government payments before they turn 64, excluding Medicare and Medicaid. For a tiny fraction of that cost Project SEARCH and similar programs can prepare young adults to be self-sufficient. We cannot lose another generation of talent because of low expectations and poor public investments.

People with disabilities can be talented, eager, and committed to excellent hard work. Yes, it can take extra training, coaching or assistive technology, but Walgreens, EY, AMC and others have proven that people with disabilities are loyal and successful employees who help their bottom lines.

New York's Employment First Commission, like other such groups now being formed around the country, is tasked with creating an employment-first policy for New York to make competitive, integrated employment the first option when considering supports and services for people with disabilities. The goals of this new initiative are to increase the employment rate and decrease the poverty rate for working-age New Yorkers with disabilities. The commission will be forced to create new and better systems without the benefit of FEGS.

RespectAbility, in conjunction with Best Buddies, National Association of Councils on Developmental Disabilities , National Council on Independent Living, Paralyzed Veterans of America, and National Organization on Disability, has created a "Disability Employment First Planning Tool included in our testimony before the Employment First Commission. Most of our recommendations, like those found in the National Governors Association report, A Better Bottom Line: Employing People with Disabilities , were taken from proven best practices, while the rest are emerging promising practices.

The FEGS closure is a wake up call to shift resources from glorified babysitters to proven best practices that will help people with disabilities find and keep jobs. This will reduce isolation, poverty and stigmas. Ultimately, it will also save taxpayers significant money.

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