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The challenge of poverty in DC can feel overwhelming. What can any one person do? Experts largely agree that workforce development is the solution, and the good news is that you can have a big impact.

Workforce development is the systematic removal of barriers to employment, whatever they may be, that jobless residents face. There are many stereotypes about the causes of poverty in DC. Examining the true causes of poverty shows why workforce development matters so much, and why it deserves far more attention than it gets.

The initially-apparent causes of poverty are unemployment and underemployment. But what personal or systematic barriers to employment do jobless people face? You may be surprised to learn what they are.

The root problems of poverty may not be what you think

Joblessness in DC is due to poor workforce readiness, not lack of jobs. Martha Ross, a Brookings Institute fellow who leads research on DC, notes that the city has more jobs than residents and is located in an economically strong region. That means our primary lever to reduce unemployment and poverty isn’t adding more jobs, it’s workforce development.

"We’re in a relatively fortunate position: we have jobs to connect people to or train them for,” says Ross. “We’re not like other cities or regions that are hemorrhaging jobs.”

Despite this, elected officials talk about creating jobs for DC residents far more than they talk about workforce development. We could do so much to improve our broken workforce development system if we only had the will to do it.

So, what needs fixing? Some people assume that the issue is those who provide workforce training, but that’s not true. If a lack of skills were the only barrier to employment faced by poor people, DC would not have a poverty crisis.

Most jobless and underemployed residents have more obstacles to full employment than occupational skills. Major obstacles to employment are lack of child care, lack of literacy and basic adult education, soft skills, lack of transportation, addiction issues, and barriers to hiring citizens returning from prison.

Unemployment is an assault on one’s dignity. All of these barriers may cause unemployed people to lose their sense of agency and empowerment, something that most working residents take for granted. This creates the greatest challenge to public policy, but it is one for which there are proven solutions.

How can workforce development help?

It’s understandable that we would want to focus on helping the unemployed who are motivated to help themselves. The reality, though, is that doing so won’t solve the crisis of poverty. But there are proven solutions to addressing the poverty of hope that holds back those with multiple barriers to employment.

  1. Integrating literacy, basic education with skills training
  2. Literacy and adult basic education are usually considered prerequisites to occupational skills training. Not surprisingly, completion rates for literacy and basic education courses are low. They take a long time to complete, and people struggling with a loss of empowerment may be reluctant to put in the effort.There is a better way. In 2004, Washington state piloted a new model: integrated basic education and occupational skills training. It’s more expensive, because it requires two instructors. Literacy and basic education are taught in the context of a specific occupation. But it works. The program, called I-BEST, greatly improved completion rates for basic education and was expanded statewide in 2006. Many states have created their own I-BEST programs, which are often provided through community colleges. In Maryland, both Montgomery College and Prince George’s Community College have successful I-BEST programs.Meanwhile, the University of the District of Columbia Community College (UDC-CC) still provides separate basic education and occupational skills training according to the old model.  And literacy services, which are contracted by DC’s State Superintendent of Education, are also disconnected from occupational training.
  3. Pre- and post-employment wraparound services
  4. DC agencies offer many services to address obstacles to employment, like childcare, literacy, transportation, and skills training. Unfortunately, they are often hard to find, require repeated visits at all hours to offices around town, and require providing duplicate paperwork that is sometimes lost. As a result, these services often go to the jobless who need them the least because they possess the drive to navigate this system.The unemployed poor need a one-stop delivery model of wraparound services. Federal law requires every state to establish One-Stop centers to disribute federal training grants to the unemployed. But DC’s One-Stops are in desperate need of reform.Numerous studies point to long waiting times for services at DC’s One-Stop centers. And a report leaked earlier this year showed the consequences: lots of jobless come to the One-Stops for help, but very few receive services."Effective One-Stop centers often have strong partnerships with social service providers”, according to Brooke DeRenzis of DC Appleseed, who led a study of DC’s One-Stops this year.  “In some cases, partner organizations that provide services like public assistance or housing may even locate staff at the One-Stop center”, an arrangement that doesn’t exist in DC’s One-Stops.In addition, UDC-CC has been unwilling to provide any user-friendly wraparound services.  The UDC-CC president actually told a Council hearing last month that “job placement is not part of our mission”.  Unfortunately, even their core services of class registration have proven inaccessible, with reports of lost paperwork and long waiting periods.
  5. Outcomes reporting
  6. There are dozens of workforce development programs spread across 13 DC agencies, but little reporting on the outcomes of those programs. Reliable reporting would expose the ineffectiveness of isolated point programs that don’t follow the models described above.Outcomes reporting should focus not in individual job training programs, but on the One-Stops and UDC Community College. (See Update below for UDC-CC reports.) That’s because these are the agencies that should coordinate training with other services to help jobless overcome all barriers to employment.The lack of outcomes reporting is particularly tragic given how readily available it is. The employment status and salary of every employed DC resident is easily accessible in DC’s unemployment insurance database, which is integrated with those of neighboring states.


What you can do

How can you take effective action to help solve poverty in DC? For starters, you can volunteer with organizations that use best practices. Look for organizations that provide integrated basic education and skills training, wraparound services, and report their outcomes.

One example is So Others Might Eat, or SOME. This organization uses the I-BEST co-teaching model in their Center for Employment Training, and provides wraparound services to clients and tracking of graduates for reporting purposes.

You can also advocate for reform of OSSE literacy services, UDC Community College, One-Stops and our outcomes reporting system at many venues. You can email your councilmember or testify at one of several hearings each year on workforce development and adult education.

The next hearing, on September 27, concerns UDC.  Come testify about the urgency of reforming the UDC Community College as described above.  You can follow DC Council hearings on their online calendar, or email me and I’ll keep you informed of upcoming hearings on workforce development where you can testify.

Update: While UDC-CC is not required to produce outcomes reporting, it turns out that they do anyway and, to their great credit, posted the reports to their site yesterday.

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Ken Archer is CTO of a software firm in Tysons Corner. He commutes to Tysons by bus from his home in Georgetown, where he lives with his wife and son.  Ken completed a Masters degree in Philosophy from The Catholic University of America.