Jobless, Homeless, Despair: A Downward Spiral That Needn’t Be

January 4, 2016

The tool I use for this blog gives me a running account of my most-viewed posts. The list almost always includes one or both of two I wrote long ago on homeless people and work.

This seems as good a time as any to return to the issues. I’ve several in mind that I haven’t yet focused on. But they’re relatively abstract, while the reasons homeless people don’t work or do work and remain homeless are ultimately unique, notwithstanding the broad-brush treatment in the earlier posts I’ve just linked to.

Let me instead share the gist of a personal story I heard during a recent webinar sponsored by the Coalition on Human Needs and partners. Then a handful of reflections on the story and others like it.

What Happened to Sharon

Sharon had a steady job and earned enough to pay rent. Then came a layoff during the Great Recession. At first, she thought that daily jobs searches and applications would soon have her working again.

But nothing panned out. She felt “despair,” she said, “and a little bit of self-hate.” She thinks her negative feelings about herself made interviews less successful, since employers want upbeat, can-do workers.

Eventually, she used her last unemployment benefits check to pay her rent. She then faced eviction. So she called 211 — the number Boston residents are supposed to call for referrals to health and human services.

She was told how to sleep in her car. Which she did for 40 days. Then the car got towed and she had no money to retrieve it.

So she went to a homeless shelter. Like many homeless people without children, she had no assurance of a bed. She had to be in the waiting area by 1:00 each afternoon or risk spending the night on the street. This alone, of course, would have cramped the job search.

But the time constraint wasn’t the worst of it. “I had no address, no telephone,” she said, and no place to do her laundry. “All the stuff from the past caught up with me,” she added, referring to some unnamed traumas that resurfaced to haunt her.

But someone from the Department of Mental Health visited the shelter and enabled her to move to one that gave her stability and services.

She can’t hope for another job now because those services included a medical exam that found cancer. This, rather than the “toxic stress” she thinks may account for it is probably why she qualified for SSI (Supplemental Security Income).

The benefits have lifted her out of deep poverty. But, she says, she’s still determined to support herself, so far as she can. She creates greeting cards at Rosie’s Place — a nonprofit source of services for homeless and other poor women. And she’s working on an illustrated book for children.

What Stories Can Tell Us

Stories like Sharon’s have three primary values, I think. First, they remind us that homeless people are as different from one another as thee and me — in both their personal characteristics and the events that paved the way to where they are now.

Second, they nevertheless give us inklings of what public policies and programs could do to prevent hardships like homelessness, even when the storyteller doesn’t say.

Consider only Sharon’s story and the issue of work. We see that she might well have found a job and never become homeless if she’d received swift, sufficient help with her rent — enough not only to keep her housed, but to cover her phone bills.

We see that the typical shelter for homeless singles makes finding work singularly difficult — and indeed, working itself. What sort of job could Sharon have landed when the shelter couldn’t serve as an address?

When she’d have had to quit for the day not long after noon — not to mention show up for work with unclean clothes? Surely first-come-first-served isn’t the only viable shelter model for childless, work-capable adults.

We also see that a publicly-funded program could have served as a bridge from the job she lost to another that offered as much security and opportunity as one can hope for these days.

The Recovery Act provided states with funds they could use to subsidize employment in public agencies and/or private businesses. The subsidies could help cover the costs of wages, benefits, supervision and training. So they could serve as not only a bridge, but a doorway to longer-term gainful employment.

And indeed, they did, story snippets tell us, though only for parents and youth, not childless adults because the funds came through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. But a subsidized job program could also keep people like Sharon from plunging into deep poverty and homelessness.

Third — and following from all of the above — the stories show that people who’ve experienced hardships like homelessness have unique insights about needs, barriers and potential solutions. They are, as Witnesses to Hunger says of its members, “the real experts.”

So our policymaking process should make room for them. Professor Kathryn Edin, coauthor of the groundbreaking book that inspired the webinar, captured one of the big things our decision-makers could learn, if they listened with open minds.

Speaking of the poorer than poor families whom she and her colleague spoke with at length, she said, “They are American to the core. They hate handouts. They want to work.”

Notwithstanding what I said about uniqueness, we should, I think, proceed from the assumption that this is as true for homeless adults in this country as for those of us stably — at least, for the time being — housed.

Our policies and programs would look quite different if we did. And there’d be fewer homeless people too.

 


Lots of Solutions to Long-Term Jobless Crisis. But Bipartisan?

June 30, 2014

A panel discussion hosted by the Congressional Full Employment Caucus took on the plight of long-term jobless workers. The big push — and push-back — as you undoubtedly know, has centered on the need to renew their federal unemployment benefits.

But even if — big if — Congress does renew them, long-term jobless workers will still face daunting challenges in the labor market.

These have everything to do with how long they’ve been unemployed — and virtually nothing to do with anything else.

A recent analysis by panelist Heidi Shierholz at the Economic Policy Institute found that long-term unemployment rates were considerably higher last year than in 2007 for every group — age, education level, race/ethnicity, gender, prior type of occupation and industry.

So “it’s not something wrong with the workers,” she said. And her fellow panelists agreed. Their main business, however, was to identify “proven bipartisan solutions to the crisis.”

I wish I could say that I came away believing that the ideas they teed up would, in fact, gain bipartisan support in Congress.

As panelist Judy Conti at the National Employment Law Project said, there is a bipartisan consensus on the problem to solve — not enough jobs for everybody who needs one.

But that’s about as far as it goes. Conti mentioned what are generally partisan splits over how job-creating measures should be paid for — by closing corporate tax loopholes, for example, or by cutting other federal spending.

The split, I think, goes deeper than that. We’ve got Republicans going on about the job-killing effects of the Affordable Care Act, other regulations that are strangling businesses, etc.

Democrats, on the other hand, talk of more federal investment — in infrastructure, education, clean energy and other cutting-edge technologies. They’d like to channel more money to state and local governments for police and firefighters.

They want to change provisions in the tax code that effectively subsidize the costs of off-shoring jobs, as well as others that enable corporations to significantly reduce — or altogether eliminate — their federal tax liabilities.

And, of course, they want long-term unemployment benefits renewed — not only because jobless workers and their families need them, but because they create and/or preserve jobs.

This is because people who receive the benefits generally perforce spend them on basic needs. So demand for goods and services rises. More demand translates into more jobs — and more jobs into more demand.

This, I take it, is the same basic premise underlying the call for more investments. It also underpins another solution Shierholz mentioned — action that would deter other countries from manipulating their currencies so as to make their exports cheaper and imports from the U.S. costlier.

What’s not altogether clear is whether more jobs would solve the long-term unemployment crisis, unless there were so many more employers needed to fill that they couldn’t continue to screen out applicants who’d been out of work for some time.

Happily, panelists also had some thoughts about how to level the playing field.

One already underway is somewhat similar to the subsidized employment programs most states created, using money from the now-expired TANF Emergency Contingency Fund that was part of the Recovery Act.

Two other solutions are already pending in Congress. An uphill battle there. One would prohibit employers from using credit checks as a screening tool. It’s not specifically for long-term jobless workers, but for obvious reasons, they’re more likely than others to fall behind on their bills.

The other would undo a Supreme Court ruling that makes it extraordinarily difficult for older workers to prove age discrimination — apparently a reason that so many who become jobless remain so.

Though I’ve referred to these solutions as leveling the playing field, the last two could also be viewed as preventive measures.

Another explicitly endorsed by two panelists (and a third who couldn’t participate) would also tend to prevent unemployment — and thus the risks of its becoming long term.

It’s commonly known as work sharing. And federal funds are temporarily available for states that adopt it — or modify their existing programs to comply with the Department of Labor’s standards.

Under work sharing, employers may reduce workers’ hours, with their consent, rather than lay them off when business is slow. What the workers lose in wages is partly made up for by unemployment benefits.

This is obviously better for workers than getting fired. And better for employers because they don’t lose experienced workers — and incur the costs of hiring and training when business picks up again.

Work sharing isn’t new, but we’ve been hearing more about it, thanks to the Great Recession — and ongoing labor market woes. It’s often cited as the reason Germany’s unemployment rate didn’t spike, though its economy was hard hit.

Even though our unemployment rate is inching down, there are still about 1.5 million layoffs a month, Shierholz told us. So work sharing could still save a lot of grief.

And it enjoys support from lead economists at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute and the decidedly left-wing Center for Economic and Policy Research. Bipartisan in this respect, at least.

Lastly, Conti reminded us that jobless workers used to have to pick up their unemployment benefits checks. Office staff told them about suitable openings and sometimes helped them in other ways.

Such individualized, in-person services have dwindled — at least partly due to cuts in federal funding for the One Stop Career Centers.

A greater investment in these services would more than pay for itself, NELP says — in unemployment benefits saved, tax revenues collected and reduced social and human costs.

We see a glimmer of bipartisan support for more robust reemployment services in the new “bipartisan” bill to renew long-term unemployment benefits, as in the bill that recently died in the House.

Ultimately, I suppose, it all depends on what we mean by “bipartisan.” A number of the panelists’ solutions have — or could gain — support from some conservatives. But substantial support from both parties in Congress is a whole other matter.

 


Code Blue For TANF Emergency Contingency Fund

September 12, 2010

Back in March, I wrote about the need to extend the TANF Emergency Contingency Fund. It seemed at the time that the extension stood a good chance of passing as part of the then-latest version of the jobs/tax break extender bill — the American Jobs and Tax Loopholes Closing Act (H.R. 4213).

The House had twice passed an extension — once in March as part of the Small Business Jobs and Infrastructure Act (H.R. 4849) and again in May as part of H.R. 4213. But the small business bill is still hung up in the Senate. And the big jobs/tax break bill was ultimately whittled down to just a temporary extension of expanded unemployment benefits.

So here we are nearing the third week of September, with the Fund due to expire at the end of the month.

Republicans seem dead set against more stimulus spending. The Obama administration seems reluctant to step up to the plate, though Jared Bernstein, the Vice President’s Chief Economic Advisor, has blogged in support of an extension.

Hard to know whether the Democratic leadership in Congress will tee up the extension again or focus on high-stakes fights, e.g., the expiring Bush tax cuts, the energy/oil spill legislation, must-pass appropriations and maybe (given the egg recall) the long-pending bill to strengthen the federal food safety system.

Some of the major liberal research and advocacy organizations are trying to get the extension on the agenda — notably, CLASP, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Center for American Progress. But this is not a typical liberals versus conservatives issue.

Kevin Hassett, an economist at the quite conservative American Enterprise Institute, told the Senate Finance Committee that a major expansion of at least the subsidized employment provisions of the Fund would be a good idea, if focused “as much as possible” on private-sector jobs.

Beyond the Beltway, the bipartisan National Governors Association, National Conference of State Legislators and National Association of Counties have all come out in favor of an extension. Governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi, former Chairman of the Republican National Committee and now  Chairman of the Republican Governors Association, wants an extension too.

At least two West Coast nonprofits are drumming up grassroots support. One — Mission Neighborhood Centers — is a social services provider in San Francisco. The other — Internet Archives — offers free access to digitized books and other resources.

What’s brought these strange bedfellows together are the subsidized jobs programs that state and local agencies have created or expanded using Emergency Contingency Funds.

Those who follow this blog know that I’ve got serious reservations about the District’s use of these funds for its Summer Youth Employment Program. I’ve none at all about programs like San Francisco’s Jobs Now!, which has placed more than 3,600 unemployed and underemployed low-income parents in temporary jobs that build workplace skills and experience.

Or Mississippi’s STEPS, which also focuses on low-income parents and provides phased-out wage reimbursements intended to promote regular hires. Or Tennessee’s program, which has focused on a rural county where the unemployment rate shot up to 25% after an auto plant closed.

All-told, 36 states are operating subsidized jobs programs. A new CBPP brief indicates that they’ve placed more than 250,000 parents and teens.

Only four states will indefinitely continue their year-round programs at the current level if the Emergency Contingency Fund isn’t extended. Twelve will immediately terminate their programs, and three will continue operations only till their current funding runs out.

This will be bad for the many thousands of people who will be thrown out of work and for those who would be eligible for future placements. It will be bad for small businesses that have managed to stay afloat and, in some cases, expand because they’ve had subsidized workers. It will be bad for our economy as a whole, which, as we know, needs more consumer spending.

Close to home, the District could claim nearly $27.8 million if Congress passes the extension that’s been under consideration. It could use the funds for a broad range of purposes, including support and training for its TANF participants, homeless services for families and (dare one hope?) a robust, well-targeted subsidized jobs program.

So if you live outside the District, I urge you to sign my petition (a new one) in support of an extension of the Emergency Contingency Fund. And if you’re disenfranchised like me, please pass the word along.


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