Many young people need financial help to become employable. Yet financial assistance – real money carefully targeted toward removing barriers to employment, education and training – is not on the youth policy agenda.
Money matters. Yet strangely enough, in fighting poverty among young people, anti-poverty strategies routinely ignore the role of financial assistance.
Polls show that Americans admire the Social Security Administration for getting checks out on time to the elderly. They admire the Federal Emergency Management Agency for meeting the emergency and disaster relief needs of the citizenry. What do these two government agencies have in common? Speedy and efficient transfer of payments and loans to meet specific objectives.
Why can’t we have more of this in the world of youth career development?
I recently reviewed case files in Indianapolis and came across the stories of two young men that illustrate how to put this idea into practice.
One man was out of school and out of work, but enrolled in the Fathers and Families Resource/Research Center. The center is part of the Youth Employment Services (YES) network, a group of programs for out-of-school youth. YES is skillfully managed by the Indianapolis Private Industry Council (IPIC), which serves as the local Workforce Investment Board.
The man, in his mid-20s, entered the fathers center with a strong desire to learn how to improve the life chances for himself and his children. After completing a fatherhood development workshop, he showed great motivation to find a career in the food industry.
IPIC’s Youth Employment Services arranged for a voucher payment (with funds from a Lilly Endowment grant in a special demonstration) to help him enter a 10-week culinary arts class at another agency. YES also provided learning materials for the class and paid for a month of his rent while he was enrolled.
After graduating from the culinary class, he immediately found a job as a cook at a downtown restaurant. This young dad is now working for a training program as both a truck driver and food preparer.
Another young man came to the Fathers and Families Resource/Research Center with a great will to succeed. After completing the fatherhood development workshop and passing his GED exam, this 22-year-old sought an occupation that would provide decent wages and opportunity for advancement. After a few weeks, his efforts paid off: He got hired by a large roofing company that understood his background and ambitions.
He has been working at the company for more than six months and receives excellent reports from his supervisor. While he has been employed, however, he has had to overcome two barriers to keeping his job: transportation and housing. Before starting at the roofing company, he did not have a driver’s license, a vehicle or a place of his own.
With direct financial assistance from YES vouchers, he has gotten his license, paid off a few bills so that he could save money for a car and found a place to live.
No one is embarrassed to discuss financial assistance for the elderly or for victims of natural disasters. Yet we have a disaster brewing among the large number of youths who are disconnected from the economic mainstream by their early 20s, with no place to go to access small amounts of “barrier-busting” dollars.
In scanning the field for examples like IPIC, I did find a few other Workforce Investment Boards that offer financial assistance to remove barriers. The federal Workforce Investment Act (WIA) itself allows use of support service dollars, but this involves a lot of paperwork and delays. The Salvation Army and churches have helped youth with direct money awards.
Some programs offer loans and grants. But these are less efficient than direct vouchers, and they usually deal in larger amounts of money than many youth need to, for example, fix a broken headlight so they can legally and safely drive to a GED program. On a grander scale, experimental Individual Development and Training accounts help youth accumulate savings, making outside assistance for emergencies unnecessary. But this policy innovation has an uncertain future, as well as weak ties to teens and young adults.
Imagine instead a Community Fund, built with public and private money, that would award small “barrier-busting vouchers” or pay bills to help out-of-school youth residing in targeted areas carry out their plans to become employable. It would be carefully managed and monitored – like the federal Social Security and emergency management agencies – and would become equally respected.
Anti-poverty research tells us that it is the accumulation of small impediments that keeps many people down. It wouldn’t take much to lift many young people back up.
Andrew Hahn is professor at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University.