We Know We Can Be a Nation That Works for All

By Melissa Young, Director, Heartland Alliance’s National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity

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This blog post is adapted from Melissa Young’s closing remarks from our 2016 national conference, A Nation That Works: What’s It Going to Take?

At Heartland Alliance’s National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity, we believe every person deserves the opportunity to succeed in work and support themselves and their families—and from our 127-year history of working alongside our participants, we know that putting people at the center of solutions is key to ensuring that programs, systems, and policies work together to end chronic unemployment and poverty. That’s why, over the past year, we’ve spent a lot of time listening to the stories of people within our programs and communities across the country who, by nearly every standard, are doing everything right but still struggle to make ends meet and to reach their full potential because this nation isn’t working for them.

Stories like the one told to us by a young man participating in a youth summer jobs program who said he didn’t feel safe walking home at the end of his shift.  Or the story of a 17-year-old young woman in the same program, whose greatest fear was not having enough to eat the next day. These young people keep us up at night thinking about how to ensure safety and full bellies for everyone—especially while they intensely pursue brighter futures.

Or the stories of the millions of men and women who are returning home from incarceration and find themselves stripped of their dignity, preyed on by systems, and discriminated against at almost every turn. Or others, if they are able to obtain a job, struggle to stay stably employed and housed due to lifetimes of trauma.

And in the nation we live in today, in many affluent across the country, we listened to stories of people who are working full time but living in their cars, shelters, or doubled up with family or friends because they can’t afford to keep a stable roof over their heads.

These stories, along with countless others, are what motivate our work to end chronic unemployment and poverty. And it’s these stories that inspired our recent national conference, A Nation That Works: What’s It Going to Take?, which brought together people from across the country who are striving to ensure that everyone, regardless of the barriers they may face, has the opportunity to get, keep, and advance in employment.

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Our conference demonstrated on a national stage that in every corner of the country, there are effective programs and providers, tireless advocates, and impactful investors who are working tirelessly to end chronic unemployment and poverty. But to truly be a nation that works for all, it’s going to take even more effective program providers, tenacious advocates, informed elected officials, and responsive and nimble government bodies. It’s going to take philanthropy making more impactful investments and bigger bets. It’s going to take big thinkers, dreamers, number-crunchers, organizers, and doers. It’s going to take big and small organizations and unlikely partners. It’s going to take all of us, and we’re ready to partner to make big bets and act boldly to move the needle even further.

So what do we think it’s going to take to make us a nation that works for all? At Heartland Alliance, we believe we must address poverty, inequity, and violence in our communities and nationally through a multi-pronged, bold approach that includes:

  1. Expanding what works and reforming what doesn’t through policy change.
  2. Piloting and testing bold ideas nationally and not being afraid to fail.
  3. Expanding innovative strategies and programs and continuing to learn from them.

We know we don’t have all the answers, but we have a few ideas that we believe, in partnership with organizations and communities, will help us take big strides towards becoming a nation that works for all.

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  • We believe we need to invest in people and communities through policies and programs that demonstrate a national commitment to ensuring that everyone who wants to work has a job, regardless of the barriers they face, as well as make a down payment on meeting our nation’s infrastructure needs to make jobs available in communities and for people that need them the most.
  • We believe we need to strengthen the relationship between housing interventions and employment solutions to ensure that people can remain stably housed and employed by piloting and testing blended housing and employment interventions on a national scale.
  • We believe we need to expand the use of trauma-informed care and other therapeutically grounded approaches within workforce development and human services programs and systems in order to work toward healing communities one person at a time.
  • We believe we need to need to build a 21st Century Safety Net that ensures that no one falls through the cracks.
  • We believe we need to interrupt, prevent and end cycles of violence by ensuring that every young person has access to employment opportunities and pathways to education, training and supports regardless of where they live or the color of their skin.
  • We believe we need to reform and re-balance the current criminal justice system and put resources and energy into ensuring that our reentry systems are robust and give everyone a fair shot and a second chance.
  • We believe we need to make every job a good job so that no one who works full time in this country lives in poverty.

To make these bold ideas a reality, we need you to be all in with us. If you’re ready to work alongside us to be a nation that works for all, we’re ready to welcome you with open arms.  In the weeks and months ahead, we’ll be in touch with news, information, and ways that you can be involved to help us tackle chronic unemployment and poverty—and if you’d like to invite others to join, please go ahead and send them this blog and encourage them to sign up for our e-communications.

It’s time to be ALL in.

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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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