More Truth, Please.

By Melissa Young, Associate Director, National Transitional Jobs Network

Earn and Learn DCAs we reflect on Black Male Achievement month, we know we have a lot to do to achieve economic equality in the form of employment and advancement opportunities for all black men. While the causes of economic inequality are many and the solutions varied – one thing is very clear to us. In order to be successful in driving federal policy change forward, we must include the experiences and the voices of the men and women who have experienced first-hand the effects of chronic joblessness and poverty.

In order to advance our policy goals, I spend much of my time in Washington D.C. and on Capitol Hill.  Usually fact sheets, talking points, research, and an I-have-to-achieve-my-goals-for-this-meeting-in-15-minutes-or-less agenda accompany my climb to the Hill. (All valuable tools in our policy change work, mind you.)  In September, however, I had the opportunity to march up to Capitol Hill with the aforementioned tools and 10 members of the Southwest Housing Solutions Michigan Earn + Learn program, a Detroit-based initiative that helps low-income individuals – mostly black men – succeed in the labor market.

Launched in 2011, Michigan Earn + Learn is an initiative that helps low-income, at-risk individuals who are disconnected from employment and education, including many young minority males; people returning from incarceration; and chronically unemployed individuals reenter and succeed in the labor market.  Earn + Learn participants gain work experience and earn a paycheck via a Transitional Job while also pursuing education or job training to help them advance in the workplace.

On September 19, Michigan Earn + Learn participants traveled to Washington D.C. to join me and meet with members of the Michigan Congressional delegation. Together, we talked about the need for more transitional jobs programs like Michigan Earn + Learn, livable wages, transportation, education and training, and criminal justice reform. The meetings we had that day were some of the most authentic and impactful I have ever had a chance to participate in. Why? Because these men and women were courageous enough to share their real life experiences and truths with their members of Congress in order to move the needle on policy change.

“I wouldn’t be sitting here in front of you today if it wasn’t for the Michigan Earn + Learn program. I would probably on the streets, or back in prison, or dead.” – Michigan Earn and Learn Participant

In each of the meetings, federal leaders heard Michigan Earn + Learn program participants described their experiences of having a criminal record; experiencing employer discrimination because of the double-whammy of race and record; and not having access to reliable and safe transportation, health care or housing.  Each person spoke from their own experience about how important a job is when a person returns from incarceration and how much they and others they know want to work and support their families. They described how the Michigan Earn +Learn program saved their lives by opening doors to employment, squashing stereotypes, changing their own perceptions of who and what they could be, and giving them hope for the future. They talked about how working for minimum wage was a vicious poverty trap and how important education and training was to them in getting ahead. Their thoughtful ideas about what must change in order to provide hope and opportunity, a fair chance, and dignity to more people in Detroit and across the country reflect what it seems like we desperately need more of in federal policymaking: More truth.

Truth. One in three black men can expect to go to prison in his lifetime. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the number of black men who were in jail or prison was roughly equal to the number enrolled in college. College enrollment rates by black men have since outstripped incarceration. We know that the scarlet letter of having a criminal record decreases the chances of getting and keeping a job and safe housing. Furthermore, when a man is incarcerated he is removed from his family and community. The remarkably high rate of incarceration among black men contributes to obstructing opportunity and mobility for far too many black men and their families.

Truth. In 2012, black unemployment averaged 13.8 percent – much higher than the average unemployment rate for the total population and nearly twice the average unemployment rate among whites. More than 1 in 5 working age black men are living in poverty in the United States with average annual earnings of only $26,287. In 2010, whites on average had six times the wealth of blacks and Hispanics. Indeed, for every $6.00 whites had in wealth, blacks and Hispanics had $1.00.

Truth. We know that many of these men are non-custodial parents, and are part of the child support system. The child support program serves half of all poor children in the country,and 17 million children in total. While many noncustodial fathers want to be involved with their children, many live in poverty and lack the resources to financially provide for their children. Most unpaid child support is owed by these parents and for many the lack of steady income is a major barrier to fulfilling parental obligations.

As a part of its ongoing mission to cut extreme poverty in the state of Illinois, the Illinois Commission on the Elimination of Poverty held meetings across the state to hear real stories from real citizens about the impact of poverty on their lives. In Chicago, the Commission heard extensive testimony about the numerous barriers people face when searching for work, including the stigma surrounding formerly incarcerated individuals, people of color, and youth. Watch the testimony here.

These truths are inexcusable. And so is failing to include the voices of more men and women who have experienced chronic joblessness and poverty in our policy change work. As the government gets back up and running, we must redouble our efforts to bring the stories of real people to our federal leaders more often.  We hope you will join us in being a part of an authentic movement toward economic equality.

Our many thanks to the following Michigan Congressional offices for hosting Michigan Earn + Learn participants and for your dedication to ensuring that all Americans who want to work have the tools and resources to do so:

  • Representative John Conyers Jr.
  • Representative Gary Peters
  • Representative Sandy Levin
  • Senator Carl Levin
  • Senator Debbie Stabenow

If you are interested in providing opportunities for your employment program participants to travel to DC to participate in advocacy efforts, please contact NTJN Associate Director Melissa Young at myoung (at) heartlandalliance.org.

Hear from Rabih Bazzi, a job developer at one of Earn + Learn’s partner organizations, ACCESS, speaking about their experience in D.C.

Hear from Laurie Diener, Senior Manager of the Earn and Learn program at Southwest Housing Solutions Corporation, speaking about their experience in D.C.

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About National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity

Heartland Alliance’s National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity is dedicated to ending chronic unemployment and poverty. We believe that every person deserves the opportunity to succeed in work and support themselves and their families. Through our field building, we provide support and guidance that fosters more effective and sustainable employment efforts. Our policy and advocacy work advances solutions to the systemic issues that drive chronic unemployment.

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