Worker Training & Community Revitalization: A Stimulus Success Story

Last week, as part of a project, I spent part of my day talking to a nonprofit community organization leader who told me about a once-homeless man who is now a construction foreman. And a woman whose Chicago-based organization is creating training opportunities for unemployed and under-employed minority workers in neighborhoods that have been left behind. Another community leader from New Jersey told me about creating new green-sector jobs and working directly with a local organization that helps people get back into employment from a variety of tough circumstances.

In their communities, as in many others around the country, the long-term consequences of poverty, lack of formal education and training, and lack of opportunity, have been devastating. Throw in the recession, and the scenarios are seemingly impossible to manage.

The common thread with these folks: They are all federal grant recipients of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, commonly known as stimulus funding. These particular organizational leaders received grant funding through the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences' Worker Education and Training Program, which was established under the Superfund Act to protect human health from toxic environments.

The new training opportunities and jobs created for them through stimulus funding? Cleaning up hazardous environments and disaster situations -- toxic spills, hurricanes, and chemical and oil spills.

These are not jobs for the weak-willed. These are the sorts of people who helped in the clean-up of the World Trade Center site and the Pentagon after the tragedy of 9/11, they are the folks who suited up to clean the mold and toxins that Hurricane Katrina left behind. And even now, they are among the hardworking men and women cleaning up the chemicals and oil left behind by the BP spill.

The leaders of these organizations are leading in the grassroots efforts to make good use of stimulus funding -- not only through the short-term provision of new jobs and opportunities, but through the long-term idea that worker training will lead to a lifetime of opportunities for the under- and unemployed. For each one of these individual stories from grant recipients, there are 50, 100, 200 newly-trained community members ready to get to work.

Publicly, the pundit response to the $800 billion flood of money into local programs has ranged from hopeful to critical -- but most of it based on the premise that we must ONLY see immediate, dramatic change from the stimulus funding to declare it a success. We've bought into that idea even though many economists tell us that the stimulus helped avert a slide from recession into a 1930s-like depression. Media have tended to focus on the stimulus as fodder for partisan pundit discussion; I'm not sure I've seen or read stories that highlight the people and programs who have benefited.

Immediate results are ideal -- and they are happening in incremental ways around the country. But the long-term results of the stimulus funding, in the form of real people, may be hard to track for years to come. But if we don't look, we might not see them.