Taking Aim at Chronic Unemployment and Poverty

The chronically unemployed live within or haunt the edges of every American community. Unable to find work due to a lack of education, extreme poverty, homelessness, family instability, substance abuse, mental illness, criminal histories, or race, ethnicity, and gender bias, their plight reminds America of how far short we've fallen from the promise of justice and opportunity.

Almost 23 million people remain unemployed or underemployed, and poverty continues to grip over 46 million Americans. On top of that, large numbers of adults and out of school youth in the United States are chronically unemployed. Few of them are counted in formal unemployment statistics because they are no longer, or never were, sufficiently connected to the labor force to be counted in those statistics. What if we could attack these economic and societal ills with one swing? Well, I think we can.

The Transitional Jobs strategy is a pragmatic approach to lowering chronic unemployment and poverty that cuts through the complex reasons for a person's unemployment and starts with the desired outcome -- employment. Transitional Jobs combine wage-paid work, job skills training, and supportive services to help individuals facing barriers to employment succeed in the workforce. The person is placed in a subsidized, temporary, wage-paying job. Case-managed social services are also brought to bear while the person is working and earning an income to address the factors that have blocked that person from finding work in the past. Job development services then help place that person in unsubsidized work as soon as appropriate, and job retention services consolidate a successful transition to long-term employment and a career path.

The Transitional Jobs strategy has produced promising outcomes for participants, often breaking through their chronic unemployment. Research shows that Transitional Jobs programs are the most promising strategy for supporting transitions to work for chronically unemployed Americans. They offer immediate and long-term benefits to individuals, families, employers, and communities, including: reducing recidivism rates; reducing reliance on public benefits and lowering taxpayer costs; improving educational outcomes for dependent children; increasing local demand for goods and services; and benefiting employers by increasing productivity and financial well-being.

Since there has never been a federal program or budget line dedicated to the Transitional Jobs strategy, practitioners and a growing number of local and state government officials have had to cobble together funding to support this work. As recognition of this strategy has begun to spread, some progress has been made toward incorporating it into a national approach to solving the dual problems of poverty and unemployment. The Obama Administration is currently operating a demonstration program in the Department of Labor -- the first ever application of federal funds explicitly to Transitional Jobs. Still, more can and should be done to advance this strategy to help a greater number of people facing chronic unemployment and poverty.

As the Obama Administration moves into its second term, here are three ways the Transitional Jobs strategy can be adopted to attack chronic unemployment and poverty:

1. Creating Pathways to Jobs for All Americans through Job Creation.
The Pathways Back to Work Act is aimed at providing subsidized employment and Transitional Jobs for youth, the long-term unemployed, and low-income Americans, along with job training to get unemployed Americans back to work, strengthen communities, and benefit employers.

With almost 23 million people unemployed or underemployed, and millions more unemployed outside of the official count, the economy needs a booster shot. Measures like the Pathways Back to Work Act would do just that and can be structured to ensure that those who are chronically unemployed have access to Transitional Jobs in a greater number of communities across the country.

2. Strengthening Families through Employment Opportunities.
The child support program serves half of all poor children in the United States and 17 million children in total. While many noncustodial fathers want to be involved with their children, many live in poverty and lack the resources to financially provide for their children. Most unpaid child support is owed by these parents, and for many the lack of a steady income is a major barrier to fulfilling parental obligations.

The Obama administration has supported demonstration projects and coordination with the U.S. Office of Child Support Enforcement to test iterations of the Transitional Jobs strategy that seek to provide noncustodial fathers with on-ramps to employment and help them meet child support obligations. The Administration could expand these programs, and the states could re-vamp their child support programs to incorporate Transitional Jobs programming.

3. Transitioning Chronically Unemployed Veterans to Civilian Employment.
Current unemployment rates for new veterans are higher than rates for other veteran cohorts, and new veterans require a range of supports -- including targeted employment services and supports -- to reintegrate. The disproportionate unemployment numbers among veterans also reflect a deeper problem: issues rooted in their military experience create barriers to becoming or remaining employed. As a result, a veteran's initial unemployment upon return can become chronic. Transitional Jobs programs, combining employment with services to address the deeper problems, are an important element of successful reintegration for veterans.

A Transitional Jobs program operating independently of the VA hospital system should be considered in order to serve veterans with barriers to employment who are not enrolled or participating in VA hospital services. Transitional Jobs programs currently in operation within the VA hospital system should be expanded to meet the employment needs of chronically unemployed veterans in hospital settings in a greater number of communities.

The Transitional Jobs strategy provides a very promising opportunity to successfully attack the problems of chronic unemployment and poverty. There are seasoned practitioners who are ready to provide information, advice and technical assistance, brought together by the National Transitional Jobs Network. They have experience applying the Transitional Jobs strategy in a wide variety of contexts: as part of larger public employment strategies; focused on particular populations; or as stand-alone social enterprises. The Transitional Jobs strategy is an excellent way to take aim at chronic unemployment and poverty. Please consider donating to the National Transitional Jobs Network's JobRaising campaign today to help make Transitional Jobs available to all chronically unemployed Americans.

By John Bouman, President, Sargent Shriver National Center for Poverty Law and Chair Emeritus of the National Transitional Jobs Network Executive Committee