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Nonprofits: Why don’t they just get a job?

By Jason Lesley
Coastal Observer

Three years ago, the Bunnelle Foundation began changing the way it was addressing poverty in Georgetown County. Executive director Geales Sands said the foundation’s board felt they were treating symptoms rather than causes and dedicated $100,000 toward programs dealing with illiteracy, teen pregnancy, crisis management and heirs property. However, one critical piece of the puzzle, jobs, remained missing. Charlie Ball at St. Cyprian’s in Georgetown had tried a work prep idea but couldn’t find a job for his client.

When Sands heard that Dave Phillips, founder of a successful jobs program in Cincinnati, was going to be speaking in the area last week, she convinced him to add Pawleys Island to his itinerary. She hopes his idea can take root here.

Rather than another agency churning the working poor in order to collect government money, Phillips and his wife, Liane, started Cincinnati Works, a privately funded non-profit, to begin eliminating poverty by helping one person at a time get — and keep — a job.

Phillips said one of the most common refrains he hears from the general public is: “Why don’t they just get a job?” To individuals with a good work history, the answer is a no-brainer. Stories about work are passed through generations: how to relate to supervisors, the rules of work, what happens when you work for yourself, how to balance work and personal life and so forth. But one of the characteristics of generational poverty is the instability of work. One of the common phrases you hear in a neighborhood of generational poverty is: “I was looking for a job when I found this one.” The concept of a career is largely nonexistent, and if you don’t like your boss, you quit — on the spot. Dave and Liane believed that people in poverty can become problem-solvers and that the business community would treat them fairly if they worked hard.

After turning down a major promotion, Dave retired at age 56 from Arthur Anderson to do the thing he had always wanted: help other people change their lives. He and Liane have worked for a dollar a year for 15 years to instill hope in the down and out that things will get better with a job. Liane co-authored a book about Cincinnati Works and called it “Why Don’t They Just Get a Job?” in order to explain that it’s easier said than done.

Phillips told his audience at the Bunnelle Foundation that Cincinnati Works is actually misnamed. “It’s a poverty elimination organization,” he said. Cincinnati Works has 18 joint ventures in place to help people keep jobs. They include transportation, day care, mental health treatment, affordable housing and others. Phillips said those services won’t solve poverty, but they can prevent people from being overwhelmed and giving up.

“We did not intend to find a way to eliminate poverty,” Phillips said. “We were going to put 100 people to work for 20 years, and at the end we would have a couple thousand people working. Five or six years into this retirement gig, I realized by reading the numbers that we had already reached our 20-year goal with 2,000 people working. We are not that good. We can’t be that much more efficient than the workforce marketplace. Their retention rates are between 15 and 20 percent; we were in the high 50’s.”

Workforce theory says put somebody to work and it’s the employer’s responsibility to keep them working. That theory sets everybody up for failure, Phillips said. Employers are not organized to do what he calls “the wraparound services.”

“Their objective is to ship widgets,” Phillips said, “and if you interfere with that and ask them to do things they don’t have expertise to do, they will, in fact, do more harm than good. That 15 percent retention rate means you lost 85 percent. Those lost go deeper into the quagmire of poverty.”

The Bunnelle Foundation can systematically reduce poverty rather than sit by and let it expand, Phllips said.

“Only 15 percent will get out of generational poverty on their own,” Phillips said. “We’ve got to get the carriers out of poverty, and the children will follow them out. If you don’t, with 85 percent of children born into poverty, you understand why generational poverty is the fastest growing segment of the population.”

Phillips said he thought jobs would be the hardest thing to find when he started Cincinnati Works. “Jobs have never been the hardest part of what we do,” he said. “It’s changing the mind of the job-seekers, people living in poverty. We in society have given them enough to live, but they still have a lousy life. They are judged as second-class citizens, and they believe it. The biggest problem we have is they don’t believe they can. Your employees must believe in them before they believe in themselves. They will be asked to do extraordinary things above and beyond what they think they can do. There is an element of tough love, but not so tough that we throw them out. The consequences are small. If they are late, they have to come back next week to finish the class. Timeliness is one of the most important things in the workplace, so we start with the classroom emulating the workplace where they can make mistakes and not get fired.”

Phillips said it takes 12 to 18 months for an employee to get stable in the workplace, understanding a good day’s work for a good day’s pay. “People in generational poverty,” he said, “don’t know what work is. They know the result of work happens to be a paycheck. To understand them, you’ve got to get all your prejudices out of the way and walk in the shoes of the generational poor and listen to them and understand how they think. If you don’t do that, you cannot dictate what they need. You might think you know, but you don’t.”

Another misunderstanding about the poor, Phillips said, is their mental condition. “We didn’t understand that 60 percent of people walking in the door at Cincinnati Works suffer from chronic depression or anxiety,” he said. “On a good day they can get a job. On a bad day they can’t get out of bed.”

Cincinnati Works hired a psychologist to help people with mental health problems, but Phillips didn’t see his job numbers improve. He told his wife that their organization would soon become the largest mental health clinic in Cincinnati. “We were going to be overwhelmed,” he said. Rather than trying to cure clients, Cincinnati Works settled for stabilizing them so they could hold down a job with health benefits and get the treatment they needed.

Helping job seekers manage expectations is another hurdle for counselors. “A first-shift job paying $50,000 is not going to happen in the beginning,” Phillips said. “It’s going to be an unskilled, entry level job. As we find people willing and capable, willing is paramount. They must convince you they are willing to go to work.”

Phillips said Cincinnati Works counselors broke their own rules for a woman with five young children whose husband had recently left her. She and the children were living in her car. The organization has a rule that applicants must have stable housing. But the job counselor saw a spark in that woman, and Cincinnati Works accepted her. Phillips said she was a victim of situational poverty not generational poverty. She got a job and was in an apartment within two weeks. She became the “poster woman” for the organization and makes $90,000 a year as a manager today.

“Once people get the grasp of this,” he said, “they will welcome your effort to change the profile of your community.”

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