A forum attended by more than 200 people offered national and local perspectives on how to assist low-income families reach self-sufficiency through jobs
A basic pillar of the CHA Plan for Transformation is its
commitment to help public housing residents move not only into better housing,
but also towards economic self-sufficiency. In order to achieve this goal,
quality job placement and retention, training, and other work-related services
rank high on the CHA’s list of self-sufficiency strategies. As a recent MPC Update on the Plan points out,
currently, only 37 percent of families living in CHA
properties and 30 percent of families using Housing Choice Vouchers have jobs.
The July 12 “Building Successful Mixed-Income
Communities” forum co-sponsored by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur
Foundation and MPC in collaboration with the CHA, explored the current status of
work-related services to low-income families living in public housing and the
lessons learned from the field locally and nationally.
MarySue Barrett, MPC president, and Spruiell
White, senior program officer at the MacArthur Foundation, introduced the forum,
Opening Remarks by
Terry Peterson, CEO of the CHA;
- Lessons learned nationally by Mark Elliott, executive
vice president of Public/Private
The local perspective
on high-impact services and job market trends, by Davis Jenkins, senior fellow
at Chicago Great Cities
- Challenges and lessons
learned from the Service Connector program, by Molly McGrath, deputy
commissioner for the Chicago Dept. of Human Services; and
A questions and answers
session, moderated by Spruiell White.
opened the forum
acknowledging the many challenges inherent to the coordination of housing construction
phases and resident self-sufficiency timelines (which by definition, do not have
an end date): “Sometimes I feel like a dentist,” he joked, “with my
patient complaining that I am going too slow and too fast at the same
time.” Peterson pointed out that despite
the financial commitments to date from the local, state and federal levels
of government -
- many public
Chicago are still suffering the consequences
of decades of social and geographical isolation. The goal of the CHA, he stated,
is to help families that have not started out with the same chances in life
as others have, and that implies special assistance to residents looking for
jobs. CHA knows that the first job might be low-wage and not last long, and that
four or five chances might be needed for a resident to land an attractive job with
a career path, but –Peterson asserted— success will always be possible
if both sides, residents and CHA service providers, refuse to give up.
Currently, he noted, CHA is striving to become a national model in service
provision for residents, with six relocation agencies, nine service connectors
operating in every neighborhood, and a variety of programs worth $53 million a
divided his presentation in three
How to prepare
residents to work?
to make their jobs
How to create a support
1. Preparing residents to work,
Elliott, requires flexible, customized strategies rather than conceptual models.
He encouraged CHA to offer distinct programs to specific types of residents,
especially designed for:
Residents with steady,
consistent work experience;
with an erratic
work history, falling on and off the job market periodically;
Residents without major
work experience and little education.
The challenge is
to train and prepare residents for existing quality jobs with long-term potential. Transitional
jobs, pointed out Elliott, are a possible path to follow. They are
time-limited, wage-paying jobs that combine real work,
skill development, and support services to help participants overcome
substantial barriers to employment.
one to six months of paid work experience, participants are assisted in
2. Making work pay
is another important
factor. Many public residents receiving welfare assistance based on their
income levels, fear that obtaining a low-wage job will leave them worse off
financially by not covering the subsequent reduction or elimination of public
assistance (for rent, health care, food, and other basic expenses) that
comes with an increased income.
A number of tools are available to
minimize the negative impact of this reduction of welfare benefits, such as the
Earned Income Tax Credit (a federal refund for low-income workers) or flat rent
policies and other provisions that keep housing costs affordable for public
housing families who see their incomes increase upon entering the job market.
Individual Development Accounts (IDAs) are another solution. Following a concept
similar to the one behind 401k plans, IDAs reward residents who save money for
housing, education, and other self-sufficiency-related expenses, by matching
their savings with additional money.
3. Developing social networks
key to guaranteeing job retention and accessing better jobs in the future.
According to Elliott, mixed-income communities should give opportunities for
low-income residents to network and develop relationships across income levels
and classes. In order to promote a vibrant civic life at these communities,
social and cultural activities must be planned by residents, open to everybody,
and attractive to a variety of people.
began his presentation
by pointing out the fierce competition at the
lower end of the jobs spectrum, due to demographic changes, the outsourcing of
jobs, and the proliferation of undocumented immigrants looking for entry-level
Experience shows, according to
Jenkins, that chronically unemployed individuals will cycle through numerous
jobs before becoming stably employed, often needing socialization to the culture
of work as a first step. Low-wage workers often have to change jobs, even
industries, to advance to family-supporting jobs.
Decent jobs paying a
minimum of $12 per hour require skills and levels of literacy lacking in
many public housing residents. Approaches to bridging this gap need to integrate basic
literacy trainings into broader customer service-centered strategies and include
post-secondary education contents.
Jenkins listed a number of sectors
where public housing residents with limited work history, literacy levels, and
skills could find their first opportunities:
- Employment agencies
- Hospitals, long-term care, and other health care
- Hotels, restaurants
- Manufacturing, transportation, and logistics
- City contractors
However, work alone usually does not
lead to job advancement for low-wage workers, warned Jenkins: some job-connected
training is needed to advance to jobs paying family-supporting wages. Job
retention is also very important and requires working in collaboration with the
whole family in order to destroy barriers and create a “work
High-impact employment services
should address, according to Jenkins,
the needs and
circumstances of job seekers/workers
the business needs of
employers (e.g., recruitment, retention).
They should include:
- Marketing and recruitment
- Employment-related assessment and counseling
- Job placement and retention support
- Transitional jobs
- Bridge training programs
- Post-secondary education and training
- Support services (housing, day care, transportation, drug treatment,
family counseling, etc.)
Jenkins mentioned the work of different local agencies and nonprofit
organizations specialized in helping low-income individuals access and retain
jobs, including the Mayor’s Office of Workforce Development, Heartland Alliance,
and the Cara program (cára: from Old Irish,
The presentation ended with some recommendations for the CHA:
- Research employers’ human resource needs and
customize services accordingly.
- Use transitional jobs to socialize hard-core
unemployed to culture of work.
- Invest heavily in work readiness preparation prior to
placement and job coaching to promote retention.
- Provide job-connected training at CHA sites.
- Provide drug treatment and other services on-site.
- Reach out to youth and men under 25.
- Collect data on outcomes and use to improve services.
From the Chicago Dept. of Human Services, Molly
oversees the management of
the Service Connector program, funded by the CHA to help public housing
residents achieve and maintain self-sufficiency. Through contracts with nine
agencies with offices in every community area of Chicago, the program serves
more than 12,000 families living in CHA scattered sites and family properties
or using Housing Choice Vouchers issued since the beginning of the Plan for
Transformation (October 1999).
Service Connector program aims to achieve four kinds of
- Families are stable: Through traditional case
management the program links residents to education, child care, mental
health, medical, and substance abuse treatment, etc.
- Families have more household income: Including the
array of assets coming into a home, including employment, work supports, etc
- Families have more housing choices: The program helps
families become lease compliant, and teaches them household budgeting, housing
quality standards, etc.
- Families are involved in their communities: Focusing on families becoming
more connection to local churches, block clubs, and other neighborhood
Workforce development is one of the tools that the Service Connector
offers to CHA residents. Matching their skills with jobs is challenging: 44
percent of residents have education levels below high-school and lack GEDs;
84 percent have mathematical knowledge
below 9th grade levels, and 63 percent have
to McGrath, the main barriers to employment for CHA residents
- Literacy: low levels among residents are a profound
barrier to employment.
- Skills: Entry-level positions in the global economy
often require a skills set that exceeds that of many residents.
- Work History: a critical mass of residents have
little or no work history.
- Motivation: years of isolation in under-employed communities had a
negative impact on motivation to work.
Service Connector program offers and individualized approach to workforce
development, offering services leading to:
- Employment trajectories for those who are employed;
- Consistent employment for those who are sporadically employed;
- Employment skills for those with little or no work history.
McGrath described the work preparation provided to CHA families, which includes
resume writing, interview skills, acceptable attire, professional behavior,
etc. Residents also receive retention support, via early warning systems for
newly employees and regular follow-up with newly employed
McGrath concluded by posing a number of questions still to be answered, such as:
What should the system of incentives and consequences for CHA residents look
like? What should the role of schools be? What are the factors in a family’s
life that lead to success?
To see the Molly McGrath’s PowerPoint presentation at
the forum, click here
Spruiell White moderated the Q&A
session. Following is a sample of
questions and answers:
Public housing families that engage in the job market
will eventually have higher incomes that might reduce their housing subsidy or
disqualify them for housing assistance. Isn’t this a disincentive for families
Mark Elliott: Frankly, dealing with families whose incomes have
become too high (over 80% of the Area Median) to qualify for public housing
would be a problem that we would love to have. The principle behind workforce
development programs is to help families move toward self-sufficiency
progressively, eventually reaching independence. To avoid disincentives in the
short-term, CHA has set up flat rents and other rent policies that soften the
impact of increased income on monthly rent payments.
What is flexible funding for workforce development programs?
It's funding approaches should be quick, creative and able to
leverage efforts at the local and neighborhood level. One-size-fits-all
approaches should be discarded: funding and strategies should adapt to the needs
of each specific community.
What role should the unions play
in this effort? Wouldn’t apprenticeships be a good way to promote
Getting into apprenticeship programs can be very hard because of the
high academic and skill levels required. Also, apprenticeships have geographical
limitations (quotas) in areas such as construction. Nevertheless, some
construction activities and painting can offer opportunities through
public housing residents returning to mixed-income communities
developed on former CHA sites need to meet a 30-hour per week work requirement
in order to be admitted. How does this compare to other mixed-income sites
Studies on TANF show that the average worker works less hours than
that. Also, many jobs available to low-skilled individuals offer less than 30
hours per week. This makes me think that maybe the requirement should be
flexible and allow, for instance, to be met by two family members working