The Other Side of the Door
Safety-net programs originally developed to meet the economic crisis of 2008, are now giving way to workforce development strategies. If we believe that the object of workforce development is to lift individuals and communities out of poverty, then our current strategies are insufficient. It is not enough to get people employment, we need to ensure that the jobs people get can sustain them and their families. We need to ensure they are jobs that provide decent wages, benefits and have protections against fraud and unlawful discrimination and retaliation. Workforce development strategies that are not shaped with this goal in mind, risk not only failure, but also have the potential to create greater poverty.
Mayor Gray’s Five-Year Economic Development Strategy for the District of Columbia establishes a goal of 100,000 jobs to be created in seven different industries. Unfortunately, four of the seven industries in which Mayor Gray hopes to create these new jobs are among the industries in which worker exploitation, fraud and abuse are endemic. Even where workers do receive the salaries and benefits they are legally entitled to, the wages offered in these industries are often not enough to meet the basic expenses of living in Washington DC, such as housing, transportation and food.
The Mayor’s preference for counting jobs rather than assessing effects is not unusual. Elected officials’ timelines are often determined by elected terms, budget cycles and voter expectations – all of which translates into fairly short timelines and easily quantified metrics of success. Similarly, business leaders are accountable to stockholders and business plans which make it difficult to justify strategies to address poverty and resource development, such as paying workers a living wage or providing jobs and products in under-resourced communities.
The non-profit sector can and does provide workforce development strategies that are specifically aimed toward the alleviation of individual and community poverty. Unfortunately, most public and private funding opportunities tend to track the short-term, quantifiable “job creation”, rather than looking at the quality of the jobs being created.
All of these workforce development programs are focused on moving individuals “through the door” into a job – but do not address what happens on the other side of that door – especially in the low-wage industries which are being targeted for growth. Having a low-wage job is not enough to escape poverty if the worker is a victim of wage theft, abuse or discrimination. Having a job is not enough if public transportation is not available and a car has been repossessed, an eviction causes a family’s displacement or child support is unpaid. Programs which address these barriers to escaping poverty are as important as job training and need to be part of the region’s workforce development strategies.