Author Archive: Johnny Magdaleno

New Model Could Help Cities Predict Gentrifying Neighborhoods

Redeveloping Shaw/U Street neighborhood in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Derek Hyra)

Run a Google search for “gentrification” and you’ll get thousands of news items and scholarly articles on how urban revitalization risks pushing low-income communities out of cities. Despite all that research, Ken Steif, director of the Urban Spatial Analytics grad program at the University of Pennsylvania, says it’s remarkable how cities are still struggling to stop displacement when investment starts to rise.

On Jan. 31, he debuted a model that may help. It provides policymakers with a rough glimpse into the future by relying heavily on U.S. Census data to predict gentrification. The initial framework, which was rolled out through his consulting firm Urban Spatial, was applied to 29 legacy cities mostly clustered around the Northeast, but also included urban areas like Chicago, Birmingham, New Orleans and St. Louis.

Along with researchers Alan Mallach, Michael Fichman and Simon Kasse, Steif blended datasets of median housing prices for 3,991 census tracts in these cities during 1990, 2000 and 2010. They also recorded the average housing prices for groups of census tracts surrounding each census tract, and looked at other variables like changes in resident income, to measure the incline of housing values in a given region.

If they could plug data from 1990 and 2000 into this model and get a prediction for 2010 that lined up with what housing prices actually looked like in 2010, the experiment would’ve proven successful. And that’s sort of what happened. The margins of error in Cincinnati, Baltimore and Pittsburgh, for example, rested between 14 percent and 12 percent. At the lowest end of the spectrum, South Bend, Indiana, and Erie, Pennsylvania, were both under 5 percent.

What researchers did find notable was that there weren’t any distinct patterns of error — for example, larger cities on average didn’t show different proportions of error than smaller cities. “The model is not biased toward smaller cities or larger ones or those with booming economies,” note the authors, concluding that “this is evidence that our final model is generalizable to a variety of urban contexts.”

It’s an exciting addition to the debate on how to slow gentrification’s negative influence, with an eye towards the power it could bring to community development financial institutions, nonprofits or policymakers who want to channel city growth into a more equitable, accessible future. “If developers can commonly access data like this, if these sorts of analytics can be democratized, it puts us all on the same page,” says Steif. To him, that could directly translate to outlining a game plan for transit improvements based on neighborhood fluctuations among low-income populations dependent on the bus. Or, organizers using the model to help frame their community benefit agreements with major developers looking to move into a neighborhood.

But it’s not the first time researchers have attempted to peer into future growth patterns. In a 2016 article published at Cityscape, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s research journal, authors Karen Chapple and Miriam Zuk from the University of California, Berkeley point out that policymakers have been consulting “early warning systems” to scope out neighborhood shifts since at least the 1980s.

Some of these systems were extra diligent in their approach, compiling data on everything from building permits to condominium conversions to mortgage lending characteristics within the region in question. That type of thoroughness can burden a prediction model, though, if its source information isn’t easily collectable on a year-to-year basis, and you’re a community group with barely enough resources to research local poverty in its present form.

Then there’s the issue of whether or not that data communicates a clear message to politicians or nonprofits who aren’t versed in statistics or the sciences. “I can develop stat models left and right, but if nobody can [read] them, it’s pointless,” says Steif, suggesting why past models rarely led to successful preventive action on the ground.

Efficiency also has its risks. James Jennings, a researcher at Tufts University who’s investigated gentrification trends in Boston for decades, says on top of relying on official sources — and presenting their implications in a way that’s understandable by all tiers of the community — researchers need to speak with the people in the neighborhoods they’re forecasting and collect their observations as another form of data.

“A lot of the literature on this completely leaves out the voices of people feeling the angst of gentrification — the ones actually being displaced,” says Jennings. “It’s those local voices that help to highlight nuances and subtleties and little pieces of information that give us a better sense of how our city enables changee.”

That piece of research by Chapple and Zuk buttresses Jennings’ observation. In the Cityscape article, they point out how an empty lot, or crippled building, can appear to outside observation as a sign of disinvestment. Sometimes it’s just the case that the landowner is sitting on that property and waiting for the value to increase before rehabbing it — the type of information you could get from residents next door if the data isn’t easily available from the city planning department.

The goal for Steif now is to partner up with funders or other think tanks to reformat this model to additional sets of data culled from the city level. He says there’s at least one local government that’s already reached out to him to talk about adopting his model, which he describes as “using data to make improvements in the lives of people.”

“That is the overall goal,” he adds.

Mobile Wants to Matriculate Its Way Out of the Wealth Gap

(Photo: Mobile Area Education Foundation)

An Indianapolis foundation has teamed up with 75 U.S. cities to accomplish a goal that could be the most direct path to getting Americans back to work: massively increasing the number of college graduates entering the workforce.

By 2025, the Lumina Foundation has set its sights — and 1.4 billion endowment— towards upping the number of college-educated Americans to 60 percent of the U.S. population, up from 40 percent, according to Lumina.

Mobile, Alabama is one of the foundation’s partners and for good reason. The Mobile region’s rates of upward economic mobility ranks in the bottom third among U.S. metropolitan regions and local leaders say lagging rates of educational attainment are a large part of why, particularly for people of color in the region. More than half of Mobile’s population is black, yet in 2015 only 28.5 percent of students leaving college with a bachelors degree were black. Meanwhile, about a third of the county’s black population lives in poverty. A degree would be be a game-changer for families; Mobile’s college graduates made an average of $43,539 in 2014 — $16,432 more than those who only had a high school diploma.

Chandra Scott is the director of strategic outputs for the Mobile Area Economic Foundation, a local partner recognized this month by Lumina for its work to achieve a local goal of doubling the number of college degree holders by 2030, jumping from 22 percent to 44 percent in 13 years. She says her group is helping people prepare and pay for the ACT and SAT, easing at least one burden for low-income students. The local foundation is looking beyond those of traditional school age to increase matriculation rates. Many older people haven’t been priced out of higher education but would benefit from a bridge back into the classroom, she says. “How do we get those who aren’t able to afford to get back into the education pipeline? That’s something we’re trying to get to the heart of,” says Scott. “We’ll get data [we need to] re-engage with those that have never been engaged, to make sure the financial barriers aren’t the only reason people aren’t participating in the pathway.”

In addition to helping people overcome SAT and ACT hurdles, MAEF is working with local employers to connect graduates to job opportunities in real time, partnering with Pre-K programs to help instill the benefits of degree attainment at the earliest age possible and working with other local agencies to create a system for tracking employment and educational gains. “Are students successful, are they completing training, getting jobs? There was no data system or data alignment that found that that was in store,” she says.

Meanwhile, more employers have already started to settle in Mobile and job growth in the region is projected to rise upwards of 30 percent over the next ten years. The city has already had some success attracting international businesses, such as steel manufacturer AM/NS, which bought out a plant run by ThyssenKrupp in 2014 for $1.55 billion. “If we [don’t] have the human capital to fill [employers’] needs, this would leave a huge void in our community,” says Scott.

Jobs for Homeless Program Gets Applause, So What’s Next?

(Credit: City of Albuquerque)

In 2015, Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry made national headlines when he debuted a no-frills effort to reduce panhandling and homelessness in the city. With one driver and one 10-seater van, the program, called There’s a Better Way, would transport the city’s jobless to six-hour gigs pulling weeds in parks, picking up trash or tidying up the grounds at the local dump.

What started off as a $50,000, six-month pilot is now an $181,000 annual program that has inspired spin-offs in Denver, Dallas and the state of Wisconsin. Anaheim, California, became the most recent municipality to get on the trend, with Mayor Tom Tait telling an audience of 800 at the State of the City address on Feb. 7 that jobs were the solution to homelessness.

Experts on equitable economies, however, say it’s not that simple. There’s a Better Way is catching the interest of U.S. politicians on both sides of the aisle because it’s low cost and easy to deploy, but researchers say it’s a short-term fix with short-term results if municipalities don’t link it with a robust system of local services like long-term career training and housing assistance.

“My impression is close to half of persons who are homeless have employment, regardless whether their city offers this type of program,” says Sandy Darity, a professor of public policy at Duke University. “They just have poorly paid employment.”

Even if an individual were to work these jobs full-time, Darity notes that it’s still not enough pay to bring someone out of the cycle of homelessness — regardless of any short-term cash injection. Earning $9 an hour at 40 hours a week comes out to about $17,000 a year. “That’s below the poverty line,” he notes.

But there is a silver lining to the uptick in interest in this program: With more municipalities putting their weight behind it, it could attract federal dollars and open up similar no-paperwork programs leading homeless or unemployed communities into other industries.

If you’re unemployed with barriers to employment, like a prison record or mental health issues, There’s a Better Way maintains your anonymity. There’s no form to fill out, no ID required, no background checks — living on the streets is enough to qualify. (Kellie Tillerson, the employment director of St. Martin’s Hospitality Center, which oversees the program in Albuquerque, says when approached for work “most people say yes, and those that say no are typically physically unable to do the work.”)

There’s enough demand in construction, hospice care and other public job needs across the U.S. to bring this approach to more cities and more, potentially better-paying projects.

“What we’d want to do is take an inventory at the municipal level and identify what the most pressing local needs are,” Darity says. “Then structure a jobs program so we could match those needs with the skills, interests and talents of folks who seek public sector employment.”

In its current form, the impact There’s a Better Way yields isn’t going to change neighborhoods over night, but it could very well lay the seed for homeless or jobless individuals to want to seek out more gainful employment. Lack of education, no access to transportation, an empty CV and mental health issues are just some of the reasons homeless populations are reluctant to seek out work. So work that goes straight to a homeless person is also bound to bring unprecedented personal benefits.

“There’s a lot of research that links unemployment with virtually every socioeconomic problem you can think of,” says Pavlina Tcherneva, an economics professor at Bard College. She notes that the program’s quick employment opens the door for “these positive multiplier effects on homelessness, mental health issues, school retention, on crime” in the cities in question.

Tcherneva says even six hours of work is enough to get residents interested in maintaining their community long-term.

“If you put people just to sweep the streets, it already confers so many benefits. Imagine if you put them to do some basic conservation stuff,” she says, referencing the vast natural landscapes where she lives in Upstate New York, and the need for everything from river maintenance to forest conservation projects. “Then it’s not just sweeping the streets, but you kind of start building a skill set, but you’re filling these gaps in the public service sector.”

Since September 2015, the program has given 1,689 day jobs to 488 Albuquerque residents, putting about $90,000 total into the pockets of people living far below the poverty line. It’s now trying to forge partnerships with the local private sector to create similarly lean jobs programs in other industries — a long-term approach that future cities should note when trying to bring the model into their own long-term homelessness goals.

Driver-Friendly Ride App Sets Its Sights on U.S. Expansion

(Photo by Karlis Dambrans)

Maly Paul had been a driver for Uber for more than a year when another job opportunity literally stepped into his back seat. He was ferrying passengers around Boston when he got a pickup request in the Leather District from a young Russian techy named Vlad Christoff who would soon be one of the co-founders of an on-demand ride service app that claims it’s revolutionizing the gig economy.

The nascent company, Christoff told Paul, was called Fasten. It was built on the premise that a ride service could profit without pocketing 25 to 30 percent of a driver’s cut per ride, like Lyft and Uber do. Drivers with his company, Christoff said, would keep the entire ride fare save just a buck, which would go to headquarters.

Paul was convinced. He started working for Fasten in June 2015, lending a hand in the startup’s effort to recruit new drivers. Nearly half of the administrative team running Fasten is ex-Uber and Lyft drivers, and Paul says it’s easy to see why employees of those other companies would want to jump ship.

“With Uber, the end user is the customer,” says Paul. “But with us we treat the driver as our customer. And the person that uses the service is the driver’s customer.”

Since it debuted in Boston in September 2015, Fasten has set up shop in Austin, Texas, taking advantage of a service gap left in that city when Uber and Lyft fled because voters said they needed to fingerprint their drivers for background checks. Now Fasten, which has 89 administrative employees, is planning to expand into at least one additional market this year, though CEO Kirill Evdakov declined to disclose which markets it was considering.

Part of its pro-driver model is that wherever Fasten operates, it sets up lounges where drivers can hang out, meet with the faces behind the company and attend local get-togethers. Paul says they plan to replicate that model in every future city as they expand.

“The drivers know us by first name,” says Paul. “When I was driving with Uber, it was like ‘here’s this app, just drive.’ They don’t have that personal part.”

Evdakov says those who drive “full time” and exclusively for Fasten make upward of $2,000 a week, though he didn’t say what Fasten’s definition of “full time” was. Like Uber, they also cover liability claims for upward of $1 million when drivers have the app on.

“Even though it appears as though platforms pay drivers, we actually charge them for our services,” says Evdakov. “We see ourselves as an ATM — a platform to transfer the money drivers have earned directly to them.”

When asked for evidence from the drivers’ side that vets the company’s driver-friendly claims, he points to a 2015 study by Uber that shows nearly 50 percent of its drivers quit within a year after they downloaded the app. Fasten, says Evdakov, is running hot with a retention rate of more than 80 percent.

“It’s not the only evidence we have, but it’s the boldest and the most blunt,” says Evdakov.

Last October, Uber drivers in the United Kingdom forced a national ruling that drivers in the U.S. have been prodding at for years when a court in London said the company had to treat its drivers, which traditionally register with the app as independent contractors, like full-time employees. That means the 40,000 Uber drivers in England and Wales are now guaranteed paid holidays, paid rest breaks and minimum wage.

Fasten will continue on with the independent contractor model in the U.S., but its dollar-per-ride model means drivers will be making anywhere from 20 to 30 percent more per ride than they would with some alternative services. It faces steep competition as multibillion-dollar companies like Uber have more than enough capital to wield sign-up and loyalty incentives full steam at new customers and drivers. But Paul is optimistic that they’re healing the wound between gig economy companies and labor that Uber isn’t equipped to stitch.

“This is our business plan. We want to be seen as different,” he says. “And the thing that makes us different is the connection we have with our drivers. We’re definitely planning on keeping that.”

In New Orleans, Jobs and Housing Take Priority Over Emergency Savings

Participants in a Foundation for Louisiana program that promotes community empowerment and includes a focus on economy opportunity (Credit: Foundation for Louisiana)

If you’re looking for success stories that demonstrate just how impactful the Foundation for Louisiana and its partners have been throughout the New Orleans area, just talk to the man in charge. Flozell Daniels Jr., president and CEO, swears by the work his organization does because it gave one of his family members a second chance.

In 2015, his brother came to him after a string of bad luck, asking for a way out of the life that’d groomed him. “He’s seven years younger than me, but for a number of reasons we ended up taking very different paths,” Daniels says. “He ended up not finishing high school and having some legal challenges, and really reached out one day and said ‘I need some help.’”

Daniels referred his brother, who was 36 at the time, to one of the economic revitalization programs his foundation supported, the Network for Economic Opportunity. From there he connected with Strive, a four-week soft skills training program that started in Baltimore, and went on to get a certificate in welding. “He said ‘I really loved it. I feel like I’ve been changed,’” remembers Daniels. They not only helped him learn how to interview, write a resume and adapt to work life, but also helped him manage his pressing expenses, like rent and court costs.

Strive in New Orleans reports a 78 percent job retention rate for graduates up to six months after they leave the program. Nearly two years after Daniels’ brother ended his participation, he is still gainfully employed as a welder, owns a car and provides for his kids. “It’s part of the reason I’m a believer,” says Daniels.

Foundation for Louisiana works across the state, partnering with community organizations and nonprofits to build up political and economic agency among minorities and in impoverished neighborhoods. In 2015, it expanded its role in economic revitalization by linking up with the Rockefeller Foundation as part of the 100 Resilient Cities project in New Orleans. That program helped the city employ its first chief resilience officer, and develop a framework of ideals around environment, equity and city services to be achieved by 2050. Those were put to paper in the Resilient New Orleans policy agenda, which was released 10 years after Hurricane Katrina hit the city.

One part of the equity component: Reduce barriers to employment for the city’s minority communities — an urgent need placed in the spotlight by a 2013 study by Loyola University that found that 52 percent of the city’s working-age black men were unemployed in 2011. Daniels says they’re making good progress in that realm.

But when it comes to the goal of helping these communities become more financially prepared for not-so-easy-to-prepare-for moments? Not so much.

“We haven’t made the progress we hoped we would make,” says Daniels, of the idea to create emergency savings accounts for low- to moderate-income residents so that they could better maneuver financial or environmental crises. “The original plan was to work with the private sector to create these accounts, and the pilot program would work with some private sectors around the city. But we just haven’t had the bandwidth to get there.

There’s also the fact that affordable housing and job creation are just more pressing issues. “While we were talking about ‘Let’s set up these savings accounts,’ we heard from the people themselves and some of the employers that, ‘Yeah, we have some more fundamental work to do,’” Daniels says.

In 2013 nearly 55 percent of New Orleans residents were renters, as compared to 36 percent nationally, according to a report by the Center for Community Progress. But the majority of renters in the city are living below the federal poverty line while rents have steadily increased by upward of 25 percent between 2012 and 2015. Meanwhile, HUD Housing Choice Vouchers — federal housing support for very low-income families — haven’t shifted in quantity during about the same time frame, leading the report’s author to conclude that fluctuations in the city’s housing market are “placing even greater pressure on the city’s housing stock and its low-income renters.”

The unemployment for working-age black men, meanwhile, has slightly dipped, down from 52 percent to 44 percent in 2015. But while economic progress has been buttressed for city residents on that end, through multipartner and multigovernment efforts like Strive, Daniels is hoping that the emergency savings accounts will come to fruition after they make more dents curbing some of the city’s more alarming issues.

“We started this work six years ago, and we still have a lot of work to do. But those numbers mean something,” says Daniel, referring to the unemployment drop. “Those are real people’s lives.”

ACA Repeal Would Mean Higher Unemployment in D.C.

When the Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”) was enacted in the United States in 2010, it started a historic overhaul to the country’s medical insurance system, built on a belief that more people from more backgrounds should face fewer barriers and lower costs to getting insured.

Reports on the law’s impact have generally labeled it a success, as the number of uninsured has dropped from 41.3 million in 2013 to 28 million in 2016. But with the Republican-controlled Senate moving forward with a repeal of the act, states that have expanded coverage and seen greater reimbursements by federal dollars under ACA could face steep cuts and trouble for local economies.

A recent report by the Economic Policy Institute argues that repealing the ACA could leave U.S. taxpayers with a hefty check, and in 2019 alone, reduce job growth by 1.2 million and federal spending by about $103 billion. Researcher Josh Bivens says the move will disproportionately affect low- and middle-income Americans and reduce spending power for the majority of earners in a given state.

If as a result of a repeal, consumers spend less on everything from groceries to cars, then workers in generally low-entry jobs, like cashiers and line manufacturers, would be at risk for getting dropped from the workplace due to lower company profits.

“Even when [ACA] was fully implemented in 2014, there was this sense at that point that the economy was going to be completely healed [in a few years],” says Bivens, referring to recovery from last decade’s recession. Democratic lawmakers, who passed the act when they held a majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, hoped that their country would be at peak consumer spending and stable employment levels near the middle of the decade.

“That was obviously wrong,” he says. A jobs report from January confirms that U.S. employment numbers grew steadily the last six years President Barack Obama was in the White House, but growth has still been below the bar of economists’ expectations. In the EPI report, Bivens notes that “households, businesses, and governments […] are still spending less than what the economy could produce if all resources (including workers) were fully employed.”

“We’re a little closer to full health, but it’s still the case that there’s a fragile enough economy that this sudden contraction is probably going to slow the economy down and notch jobs,” he says. States that opted to expand the state and federally funded health insurance program Medicaid to cover anyone making less than 138 percent of the federal poverty line are likely to suffer the most, he says, because they saw the biggest uptick in federal dollars with ACA.

According to the EPI report, the biggest losers would be: Arizona, Colorado, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Montana, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico and North Carolina.

Bivens’ research doesn’t zoom in past the state level, but to get an image of how this could trickle down to America’s cities, it’s worth taking a look at data he crunched for Washington, D.C. The district’s employment rate, according to his research on ACA repeal, would drop by about 0.2 percent, which, when aligned with today’s numbers, would bring it up to 6.0 percent unemployment.

That means 1,466 jobs, or about 1.9 out of every 1,000 jobs in the district.

(Credit: Economic Policy Institute)

The number of people without health coverage would also jump up significantly. With 32,000 at risk of losing their insurance, the district’s uninsured population would increase by about 103 percent.

According to analysis released by UC Berkeley Labor Center in January, Los Angeles County would lose 63,000 jobs and San Diego County would lose about 15,000.

While it’s possible that economic losses would be mitigated by whatever might replace the ACA, a co-author of the Berkeley report told the East Bay Express recently, “We couldn’t model for a replacement plan, because there isn’t a consensus on what that would have looked like.”

Bivens says if states want to mitigate the impact, their first option is to get political and start lobbying state representatives against the repeal. If that doesn’t work, he says they can start looking into bolstering their own Medicare and Medicaid provisions.

“Even without the ACA expansion into Medicaid, states can unilaterally make state Medicaid programs more generous and that will bring in more federal dollars to them,” he says. Vermont and Hawaii, for example, enacted some of the fastest Medicaid expansions in the country between 1992 and 2002, and their insurance enrollment numbers among impoverished communities spiked at a remarkable pace. The federal government pays a dollar for every dollar states spend on the program.

“It’s not as good of a deal as the 100 percent matching funds that were part of the ACA expansion,” says Bivens. “But it’s still a sharper trade-off than before.”

In late January, several U.S. mayors, including NYC’s Bill de Blasio and L.A.’s Eric Garcetti, wrote a letter to congressional leaders urging them to consider carefully the impact of ACA repeal, stating, “It is our cities and counties that will see increases in indigent care costs for our hospitals, in uninsured rates and uncompensated care costs; and it is our low and moderate income residents who will return to a time of having to choose between health care and everyday living expenses, like groceries.”

Boston’s Office of Financial Empowerment Wants to Spread the Wealth

Graduates of Bridges to Careers, which is run by Boston’s Office of Financial Empowerment, are prepared to train in specific fields like culinary arts and hospitality. (Credit: Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s Office of Financial Empowerment)

Since Boston’s Office of Financial Empowerment started in 2014, it has expanded its services pretty significantly. It started out as a tax resource center, providing discounted tax prep services for low-income families, and now it’s a workforce development program and running financial empowerment campaigns for the city’s youth.

Constance Martin, deputy director, says there’s no shortage of success stories. Last year alone the office helped 13,000 Boston residents get their taxes ready ahead of April 18, saving each family an estimated $200 and logging a total of $24.5 million worth of refunds.

But one story that sticks out to her from recent memory came from Bridge to Hospitality, a jobs program at their newest financial empowerment center in the Roxbury neighborhood. Started in 2016, the initiative offered Martin a ground-level view on the impact her work was having.

A young man showed up for orientation with an interest in attending one of the culinary training sessions offered by the program. He was reluctant to talk in depth about his criminal background, only telling Martin that he didn’t know if he could make the program work out in his favor or secure a job once it was finished.

There was also the issue of his commute. He’d need to travel for about an hour south to get to the center from his home in Charlestown, a historic district on the north side of the Charles River. That meant long mornings cut up by numerous bus transfers.

“That’s the kind of thing that could really derail somebody with good intentions,” says Martin. Indeed, a recent report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research on a survey of 168 administrators of job programs like Bridge to Hospitality found 41 percent said difficulties with transportation were the main issue preventing trainees from graduating.

“But he was the only one with perfect attendance in the culinary class,” Martin says. It was a touching moment for her — a connection between what gets signed off on at City Hall and improving the fabric of the city at a personal level. He was awarded a certificate, a small prize for his attendance and the applause of his classmates. Now he’s in the next stage of training, an 18-week intensive culinary program at the New England Center for Arts and Technology.

Like the 21 other students who graduated with him, he’s also going to get two years of free financial coaching at the Office of Financial Empowerment, to help him sustain and grow his income with the help of savings accounts and interest.

He and his peers are pushing to find quality jobs in a city that’s at its greatest income equality divide in the past 50 years. The Boston Globe reports that while only 8 percent of Boston families lived in the city’s poorest regions in 1970, today that percentage hovers around 20 percent. And a look at students on subsidized lunch programs — a federal program that gives free school meals to kids from families living below the poverty line — shows that upward of 78 percent of public school kids in the Boston district were using the program in 2014.

Giving youth from these families the chance to gain financial prowess will be a big component of the OFE’s ongoing expansion. In November it rolled out a new savings campaign, called Boston Saves, to teach kids in the kindergarten-to-eighth-grade range and their parents about the importance of stashing away a few bucks anytime they come upon extra funds. The goal there is to lay the foundation for a life-long interest in managing money.

“Research shows that families with [children’s savings accounts] are more likely to see college as a goal for their children,” notes a post on the OFE site. “In fact, low-income children with $500 or less in a savings account dedicated to higher education are shown to be three times more likely to enroll and four times more likely to graduate from college.” The Boston Saves program provides families with a $50 deposit in any Children’s Savings Account they open to bring their children into that statistic of success.

But when it comes to Boston residents outside that age group, Martin says one of OFE’s main hurdles has been outreach. They’ve gone to other nonprofit organizations throughout the city to see how they can bring their new cache of services to more people like the young man who, despite his initial reservations, ended up finding his niche in the culinary program.

What they found? No one has a magic solution. Part of the reason is that there’s a slight irony that’s surfaced in their pursuit of providing both financial training and employment services to residents. “Once you get someone a job they’re less available to get financial coaching,” says Martin. “But then when you’re doing it with someone who doesn’t have a job, their lack of resources limits them.”

The extra investment of time, she understands, “can be draining.” After a full day of work, these are “young families who want to come home and collapse just like the rest of us.” They’re currently looking into new ways to tackle this divide — even considering lasagna potlucks in neighborhoods where their services are most in demand to get people to spread the word.

But the office is motivated going forward, and hopes to report some successes on this challenge within the year. “Boston has 650,000 residents, and we reach just a fraction of those in need,” says Martin. “They may not be able to take advantage of them right away due to family situations or logistics [like child care], but maybe we can plant a seed to help them participate in a program in the future.”

Boston Comes Together to Help Immigrants Find Jobs

People in Boston protest President Donald Trump’s travel restriction ban on seven Muslim-majority nations. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

When two Iraqi sisters, displaced by conflict in their home country, were resettled in Boston after years of being out of school, JVS Boston, a community organization that helps refugees and immigrants achieve financial independence, guided them through their Adult Diploma Program and secured them acceptance into Bunker Hill Community College. They’re still taking classes there today.

Yoldie Feona, now a pharmacy technician at Walgreens, landed in Boston in 2010 with her daughter after fleeing an abusive relationship in Haiti. At first, they were homeless. But JVS linked Feona with its Pharmacy Technician Training program, which she completed in 2015, and also enrolled her in a program called MassLEAP, which monitored and assisted her and her family with support services for five years. She’s been promoted twice, and JVS is providing her with a financial coach to help her build her savings with her new income.

“It was intense, but I’m very proud and very satisfied that I did it,” she says, referring to the pharmacy program in an interview with JVS Boston. “To get my life where I am today, it was well worth it.”

JVS Boston is just one of several programs, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), that braid federal and local resources into an effective salve for people in need. From Cincinnati to Seattle, these efforts provide “key unmet needs” to job seekers like Feona, according to IWPR researchers.

In December, the institute released findings from a survey of 168 workforce development administrators across the U.S. that quantified the types of personal and family issues threatening to derail trainees, most of which were women, from finishing career programs. Sixty-five percent said child care was the biggest need for women in their programs. Fifty-two percent said schedule conflicts — with other responsibilities like part-time work needed to sustain a living — were another key factor. And about one-third pointed to domestic violence as a common, untended trauma.

But the report also noted that support service organizations that formed a mosaic with other local providers advancing the same causes are every effective: These types of partnerships had an 80 percent success rate of helping individuals complete job training programs from the very first day.

Julie Anderson, a senior research associate for IWPR who has traveled to work sites across the U.S., says that different organizations face different problems, depending on the community they serve.

“In places that are more urban, one of the needs they all identified as struggling with was housing,” says Anderson. People were partly entering workforce programs to find better-paying jobs so that they could keep up with the rise of rent in cities like Seattle. For example, the Seattle Jobs Initiative has been providing career services and connecting low-income individuals with affordable housing for nearly two decades.

Job seekers in rural areas are more likely to be hampered by transportation issues. “If there’s no public transit system, people have to have cars,” Anderson says. “That’s a different need to be filled than working with local transport systems to provide [discount] bus passes.”

Eight organizations that IWPR highlighted in a January report, however, were all unified in one aspect, though: an ability to maneuver dwindling resources and increasing demand by shifting federal funds for programs like SNAP among projects, and create tight networks with other service providers in areas like food assistance and domestic violence so that they can give trainees and their families a lifeline just by picking up the phone and calling a nearby partner.

“These groups often have limited staff capacity, limited funding, and their focus is often on providing the training,” says Anderson. “But it’s acknowledged that providing those supportive services really makes the difference.”

Karin Blum, the chief development officer at JVS Boston, says her organization serves an average of 500 refugees every year. For the nearly 2,000 refugees, immigrants and locals they helped get jobs in 2015, 85 percent stuck with their new careers. The others come to JVS for English language classes and refugee resettlement services.

On top of relationships with the Metropolitan Boston Housing Partnership to help trainees find stable places to live, JVS also works closely with organizations that tend to the immigrant and refugee populations that pass through their nursing assistant and pharmacy technician training.

They’re organizations rooted in cultures from Ethiopia, Iraq, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, but in the U.S. they’re weaved into the social fabric just like the Boston-born. They’re also giving back to the urban community that saved their lives — a direct challenge to the narratives surfacing in today’s political climate.

Giving back, for them, might also quite literally mean saving a life, according to Blum: Nearly all of the CNA training slots currently go to immigrants.

Entrepreneur Hub Hopes to Spur South Dallas Economy

(AP Photo/Brandon Wade, File)

In January, city leaders in Dallas presented a new plan for economic revitalization in Fair Park, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city. But what they unveiled during a press conference wasn’t from the traditional playbook of city-sanctioned job platforms, like a new workforce training center, or a new facilities contract with a major employer.

Instead, they announced a new entrepreneurship hub — the type of place that conjures up images of middle-class college grads toiling away on computer code behind a laptop screen.

The 5,000-square-foot building at Malcolm X Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard will start operating under the name of the Fair Park District Entrepreneur Center. It’ll have all the same amenities as its five other partner centers in wealthier parts of the city, like a co-working area, mentorship programs and info on how to access capital.

But this sixth center, the newest in a series overseen by The Dallas Entrepreneur Center, is partly seen as a wildcard effort to reverse the tide of poverty that’s since overcome economic push after economic push by the government. (Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings said it himself in an op-ed for the Dallas Morning News: Despite economic growth in industries throughout the city, his administration had failed Fair Park.)

The thread between poverty and entrepreneurship might seem long and thin. How can people struggling to raise families on a part-time minimum wage salary also prep pitches for seed funding rounds?

But Doric Earle, who will act as the director of the new Fair Park District Entrepreneur Center, says giving low-income communities access to entrepreneurship support could be the key to helping Fair Park area residents build their own path out of poverty — and to passing that path on to later generations. That observation is backed with research by groups like the Center for an Urban Future, which has documented how sometimes poor and poorly educated immigrants help revitalize entire neighborhoods in U.S. cities because of their entrepreneurial gusto.

“I realized after working in South Dallas for years that we needed some other way to create wealth or opportunity,” he says. “People there were working three to four jobs just to stay alive, so we knew the entrepreneur piece would resonate.”

While the city is a leader among U.S. urban areas in terms of business expansions and employment growth, Dallas is also nationally recognized as having the highest child poverty rate in the country. Poverty on the whole rose by 42 percent between 2001 and 2016, even as the city’s total population only rose by 4.4 percent in that same time frame.

When zoomed down to the neighborhood level, the 75215 ZIP code that houses Fair Park is the poorest part of Dallas County. Nearly one-third of adults 26 and older never graduated high school, and more than half of the ZIP code’s families don’t meet the federal poverty line of $23,550 a year.

But even before the city’s announcement, Fair Park was showing signs of an entrepreneurial tide. There’s Phyllicia’s Accessories, a small clothing store run by Phyllicia Tate-Locour. Our Door to Yours, run by Ty Frazier and Denise Harper, is a small catering company that’s filled plates at local events like the African American Museum’s Annual Blues & Jazz Festival.

And then there’s Miles of Freedom, the organization that Earle looks to as prime evidence of the nascent potential in residents who have been held back by frayed and sparse investment in their community. Founder Richard Miles was imprisoned for 15 years on the back of murder charges he didn’t commit. When he got out, he decided to devote himself to helping Dallas inmates secure housing and employment once they get out jail.

“No job would give me a chance, because I had been locked up. No apartment would shelter me because I had been in prison and had no job,” he writes on his website. “The perfect mixture for recidivism.”

The Fair Park District Entrepreneur Center will start buttressing groups like these as early as the spring, with the intent of creating a circle of mentors that’ll build entrepreneurship into a keystone of the Fair Park economy. Earle says it’s about time.

“What you’d consider the normal makeup of your neighborhood commerce, none of that’s here,” he says. There’s no coffee shop, no local business squares, no nothing. “So we’re basically infilling that with entrepreneurs.”

Virginia Minority Business Hub Just Got More Diverse

(Credit: Fairfax County Economic Development Authority)

Every year, the U.S. federal government directs 23 percent of its business needs to small companies across the country. Five percent of the contracts go to woman-owned businesses, and another 5 percent go to firms run by minorities.

And with nearly $300 million in major contracts from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, one minority-owned IT company is seeing just how much cash those seemingly small percentages amount to.

Favor TechConsulting fits the parameters in myriad ways: Its CEO is an African-American woman, and leadership board members either come from a veteran background, are service-disabled or, like their CEO, are minorities and women.

The company just announced a major expansion into Virginia’s Fairfax County, where it will build a new headquarters and roll out 1,200 new job hires in about five years’ time.

“You can imagine how many bodies comes with that [$300 million] contract value,” says Benjamin Lin, chief operating officer at Favor TechConsulting, estimating the economic impact the move will have in the area. While he says there’s no “perfect science” to guaranteeing that those 1,200 jobs will get created within that five-year period, “it’s based on what we’ve won already and the work we have in the pipeline.”

The new hires won’t solely come from Fairfax County, which is often roped in with the Washington-Arlington-Alexandria metropolitan area when census time rolls around. But Lin says they’re speaking with the Fairfax County Economic Development Authority and other organizations with workforce ties to see how they can best pull in locals.

Right now, for example, they’re about to roll out a veteran hiring program that’ll help fill part of the 1,200 jobs with recruits from area veteran centers.

They’re also already partnering with companies that satisfy the Small Business Administration’s (SBA) HUBZone program, which stands for Historically Underserved Business Zone. Those are small enterprises that run shop in areas with low median incomes or high rates of unemployment, and have at least 35 percent of their employees from within the “HUB.”

The SBA describes disadvantaged businesses as those run by ethnicities that haven’t traditionally had the same access to economic opportunities as their white counterparts. That includes African-Americans and Hispanics, but people with a physical disability can also qualify, as can those who live and work in an area that’s isolated from economic and cultural hubs.

Only about 5 percent of Favor TechConsulting’s outgoing contracts impact businesses that meet those definitions, but Lin says they’re always interested in exploring ways to expand that number.

Their arrival in Fairfax County adds to the region’s clout as a minority- and women-owned small business hub. Countrywide, it has one of the greatest densities of minority or disadvantaged small business certified tech entrepreneurs, and leads the state of Virginia by far. When it comes to numbers, that amounts to about 48,000 firms, with a whopping 41,905 of those run by women.

While about 29 percent of all businesses in the U.S. were run by minorities in 2012, in Fairfax County that percentage amounted to about 41 percent. And the economic impact these entrepreneurs have is massive. They employ about 80,000 people, and tally up a sales and receipts total of $14.4 billion each year.

That’s all part of the reason why Lin says Favor TechConsulting knew relocating to the region was a solid bet. “There’s a ton of talent here,” he says. “We know D.C. is kind of the contractor hub in the country, so you know there’s a lot of talent around this county.”

Their presence will only add to the reputation that minority entrepreneurs have helped build into the DNA of Fairfax County through technology and other business ventures. Suzanne Clark, a spokesperson for the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, paints their entry as significant because they’re “one of the fastest-growing companies in America.”

“It’s evidence of the infrastructure and business environment in Fairfax County […] that promotes the growth of all business sizes,” she says. A look at the county’s entrepreneurship numbers show just how far that claim is from hyperbole.

Can a Community Garden Outgrow Poverty in Southern Phoenix?

Community engagement is a critical part of the development of an urban farming project in South Phoenix. (Credit: DSGN AGNC)

In South Phoenix, among suburban-style neighborhoods where liquor stores outnumber grocery stores, there’s a massive, untended plot of dirt as big as two and a half New York City blocks. Until recently, it was a void space among the housing tracts, collecting trash where it runs up against the streets. Residents really didn’t know what to make of it.

“Kids were mostly using it to dirt bike in,” says Quilian Riano, an architect with DSGN AGNC who’s been visiting the site on and off since August 2015. Nic de la Fuente, a Phoenix resident, says some knew it as the stomping grounds for gangs in the neighborhood.

But with nearly $600,000 from art project supporters the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and ArtSpace, Riano is about to help turn the swath into a centerpiece of the neighborhood. And he’s hoping that the minority communities that make up the majority of South Phoenix will get an economic shot in the arm in the process.

He’ll work with two local nonprofits, Cultivate South Phoenix and Desert Botanical Garden, to build a massive garden out of the dirt, developing every inch of its 18 acres for an array of crops that’ll be planted and maintained by nearby residents. The project is called Spaces of Opportunity, and the end goal is to turn it into a sort of industrial co-op, where community members can sell their produce to restaurants and grocery stores throughout the city, on top of the new farmers market they’ll start up in the area, to make a profit revitalizing this land.

For those who aren’t tending the crops, the site will include a series of murals, a center square for hosting assemblies and performances, and classrooms where students from the Rosewood Elementary schools — another key partner in the project — can learn side-by-side with residents about science, technology, engineering and, of course, agriculture.

“We want to create high yield on a small piece of land,” says Riano, comparing it to major farming operations that produce on a behemoth scale. “We’re committed to making farming part of the resident’s work life — enough that it becomes something that’s sustainable for them.”

Rendering of community farm for South Phoenix (Credit: DSGN AGNC)

Phoenix as a whole has consistently struggled with severe poverty, and in 2013 ranked as the third most impoverished metro area in the U.S., according to the Census Bureau. Back then the city’s poverty rate was 17.2 percent, and its current rate of 16.2 percent still puts it near the top.

Nearly 40 percent of the population in Phoenix is Latino, and in South Phoenix an estimated 70 percent of families identified as Latino in 2010. Rosewood Elementary reported that 36 percent of the families it served were struggling with poverty.

Gangs are also a temptation for the neighborhood’s impoverished youth. But de la Fuente, who works for Desert Botanical Garden and is the project’s director, says they’ve already managed to break through that barrier with the garden project.

“One of the kids was telling me how [the lot] used to be the spot where gangs would meet up,” he says. “Since then we’ve engaged him and gotten him involved in the mural process. It’s really cool to see that, because the gangs would be tearing all this up otherwise.”

Riano started learning about some of South Phoenix’s issues when he and his partners began to host community meetings about the project in October 2015. Leaders from Cultivate South Phoenix and Desert Botanical Garden sat down with residents at that time to survey what types of crops they’d like to produce if they could make the vacant plot their own.

“There were Mexican immigrants bringing in practices from Mexico, talking about what types of vegetables they’ve learned on different landscapes, how to grow them, how to cook them,” he remembers. “There were also South Asian groups that wanted to farm and bring some of the practices that were more traditional to their communities into this space.”

They’re still figuring out what the crop layout will look like; Phoenix is in the northeast end of the Sonoran Desert, so to produce some crops they’ll need to align rows of shade trees to keep the ground cool. Cactus, agave and mesquite are just some of the crops attracting excitement from the residents. 

But first they’ll need to start figuring out how they’ll break the big plot into smaller plots for appropriate produce. The long-term process, says Riano, is to “start with a quarter acre, move them to a half acre, then to a full acre,” so that the residents can grow greater amounts of crops in greater spaces as they learn more about farming.

Right now, they’re developing about 3,000 square feet of the total project. That will include small community gardens for the residents, and a shaded barn area where they can store their tools, wash their harvest and participate in group lessons on farming. On a given work day, de la Fuente says you can expect anywhere from 30 to 100 residents showing up and lending a hand.

In a process that he calls “quick but slow,” Riano and the group of nonprofits will host community meetings at every point in the process. The only concrete part of the current blueprint is to constantly incorporate feedback and opinion from residents as they roll it out.

This participatory model, he says, is already laying the foundation for a deep impact in the area. And he doesn’t think that momentum will slow down. “We’re hoping for people to start coming here and learn that this is a community, where you can grow your own vegetables, and we can give them the skills to create their own agency through farming.”

Creating Good-Paying, Fulfilling Jobs for NYC Youth

Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Taleesha Bowrin first saw a little light at the end of the tunnel in 2014. She was out of work, without a college degree, struggling to find a permanent home and trying to raise a young son outside her relationship with his abusive father. Living in New York, one of the most expensive cities in the world, didn’t help.

“You don’t know what you’re capable of until someone else’s life is on the line,” she says. “Skating by with earning the bare minimum for bills and rent isn’t enough when you’re raising a toddler.”

She found opportunity through a new youth employment program that was rolled out by JobsFirstNYC, a nonprofit started in 2006 with city funds. The Young Adult Sectoral Employment Program (YASEP) pairs community development organizations with employers to give good-paying, career-worthy jobs to young people between 18 and 24 years old.

The program itself was started up in 2013 as a three-year pilot that gave $50,000 grants to five workforce partnerships. Those five partnerships built their strategies around specific industries that were thriving in the city, and could offer underemployed youth the chance to climb up a career ladder with jobs that provide a fulfilling kind of challenge.

But potential industry growth wasn’t the only prerequisite, says Keri A. Faulhaber, of JobsFirstNYC. “We needed sectors or jobs that were friendly for that population of 18- to 24-year-olds coming out of underserved areas,” she says.

They convened local community organizations, employers and jobs service providers in New York to get a read on the job market prior to YASEP’s first push. They also asked researchers to do a deep dive into city data and compile a report on the current job market for 18- to 24-year-olds, and the challenges they faced accessing steady-paying work.

With those findings, they opened the door to proposals for grants and received 15. The five grantees selected focused on the IT sector, healthcare, transportation and logistics.

Taleesha Bowrin benefited from a partnership between the Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation and the Total Transportation Corporation, among other employers. Through that cooperation, she was able to get her commercial driver’s license and work as a driver for the city’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

The great thing about the JobsFirstNYC programs, though, is that they also help young participants outside the workplace when a paycheck isn’t enough. “A lot of times employers will support a person until they get the job, but in what’s called the sectoral strategy” — this specific approach to workforce development that builds bridges between industries, employers and non-profits — “they keep supporting the worker to help them stay on the job,” says Faulhaber.

For Bowrin, that meant conquering her next major hurdle: finding her and her son an affordable, permanent place to live. “My son and I couch surfed between my mother’s home and my sister’s, and we didn’t have stable housing,” she remembers. “I reached out to an apartment management company who helped me out, only to find out later on that it had an affiliation with” the jobs program that helped her get a job.

In New York, people under the age of 35 are three times more likely to be unemployed than people over that age. And even as the city’s housing prices rise and affluence is increasingly the norm, the rate of low-income youth is remarkably high. Central Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant, for example, are neighbors to some of the wealthiest real estate locales in the city, yet 33 percent of youth are out of work and unemployed in those areas.

But Faulhaber says the first phase of her program was met with resounding support from those involved. As of year end 2016, the YASEP program has put 819 unemployed youth through one of its five partnership programs — 554 of which have gone on to secure jobs in the careers they trained for.

And while they’re still crunching numbers to paint the full picture of how the program impacted both employers and the lives of young people, Faulhaber says that overall it was so successful that it just got approved to run for another three years.

To her, the key has been helping industry connect with the city and nonprofits in a way that also helps them see that investing in long-term careers is a solid return on investment — for everyone involved.

“They’re all changing the way they work, while launching these new programs and seeing what it means to connect young people to meaningful employment,” she says. “Because improving job quality for these youth has been the ultimate goal.”

And with those improved jobs comes more improved lives for Bowrin and her peers.

“I have my own apartment now and a full-time job located five minutes from my son’s daycare. I can afford to give him a lot. The two of us go on vacations. I’m building the home and the sense of normalcy that I always wanted for him,” she says.

Training Program Seeks to Help Underemployed Take Control

Participants in the New Millennium Institute in Peoria, Illinois

In most major U.S. cities, you’ll find at least two kinds of career programs: municipal ones that are funded in part by the U.S. Department of Labor, and those that are backed by a web of organizations and community colleges that swap resources and money.

But in Peoria, Illinois, there’s one bare-bones nonprofit that’s trying to get the city’s underemployed ready for the career world with only a handful of donations, a small classroom at a community center and a couple of sponsorships from local employers. It’s called the New Millennium Institute, and its founder, Agbara Bryson, started it after a long career mentoring students of color at the Illinois Community College.

Bryson, who has a master’s degree in social sciences, says it all sprung from a conversation he was having with the college’s now-retired president John Erwin.

“He said that he could only count on his one hand the amount of African American males that worked at the college,” remembers Bryson. “He wanted more black male employees, but when you started looking at students, the dropout rates were highest among African-American males.”

Bryson created the Harvesting Dreams program as a response. It’s a series of after-school and lunch-hour classes that were free to attend for youth of color. They’d discuss the history of slavery, perspectives on masculinity and the struggles that African-American males face in U.S. society today.

The program was a push to help young black men understand their path so they could better navigate their future. “We’re talking about socially, emotionally and academically preparing them [for life after college],” he says. “And we had great success, and provided tutoring to individuals who came in, individuals who were on work release, needed community service hours.”

He ran Harvesting Dreams for 15 years. But although it’s still up and running at Illinois Community College and has since been adopted by Carl Sandburg College, a community college in Galesburg, Illinois, Bryson says he got to a point where he wanted to spread its impact to the communities around the campus.

Even before kids got to college, “there were homicides, high school dropouts, high school murders. I knew that the bulk of that had to do with the lack of economic opportunities,” he says.

Last year, Peoria was named the worst metropolitan area in the United States for black populations by financial news site 24/7 Wall Street. The reasoning: No other city has a greater prosperity divide between white and black communities, based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and incarceration data from The Sentencing Project.

The key points from that article: The percentage of black citizens in poverty is quadruple that of white citizens in poverty; black citizens are about nine times more likely to end up in jail; the median income among black communities is just below half of the median income among white communities.

None of that’s news to Bryson, who grew up in the Taft public housing buildings at the north end of downtown Peoria. They became embroiled in race-related riots in the late 1960s after police were accused of forcefully arresting a 16-year-old pregnant black woman from one of the buildings for allegedly throwing rocks at cars.

But despite the unsolved history of racial tensions in the region that have bled into the present, Bryson’s New Millennium Program, which he says has placed about 35 of its 40 participants into jobs or education programs, is all about making students take control of their personal lives.

“The 30 employers I work with basically have the same message: There’s not a shortage of jobs, we just can’t find job applicants,” says Bryson. “That means teaching them soft skills, how to interview, how to communicate, but more importantly how to show up every day and show up on time.”

His push is to help individuals “challenge their self-handicapping behaviors.” Once they pass through his two-and-a-half-week boot camp, he then refers them to construction unions, retail employers or the city jobs program, Career Link. Or, if the trade they’re interested in requires a bit more training, he sends them to vocational or technical institutions like the Illinois Community College.

The biggest impact he has, he says, is through building trust with his students. That opens up new doorways to reach new people who may have never reached out for help in the first place.

He just started working with his most recent cohort on Jan. 17. After the first class, one of his participants started bringing in his niece, who had a black eye from a domestic violence dispute, so that Bryson could help her prepare for a new life away from her partner.

“Most of the comfort zones [for students] involve poverty, crime, drugs, alcohol, a history of being unsuccessful,” he says. “But instead of feeling hopeless, they now feel hopeful. They realize they have the power, because they now feel competent, and are able to come out of those comfort zones.”

San Bernardino Maneuvers to Save Jobs Programs

(Photo by Amerique)

When it comes to U.S. cities struggling to get to steady footing after last decade’s recession, Detroit took the national spotlight after filing for bankruptcy in 2013. And rightfully so — it was the biggest municipal bankruptcy in the country’s history.

But a year before, San Bernardino, California, filed for its own Chapter 9 protection, with $45 million in debt that crippled its economic outlook. Four years later, the city of 200,000 is now embroiled in the longest Chapter 9 process in recent U.S. history, and last year it gutted its Employment and Training Agency partially to help it climb further out of the hole.

San Bernardino County announced in December it would step in to take on the workforce development roll. Reg Javier, the county’s deputy executive officer for workforce and economic development, says he thinks this will actually make his work — and the efforts of the region’s job programs — a lot more impactful.

Prior to this, the city and the county ran two different workforce programs, reaching two different parts of the city’s population, and backed by two different funding streams from the federal government. “It created a sort of donut hole in the middle of the county,” he says, referring to their lack of reach in the city.

The county has one of its federally funded American Jobs Centers in Valley View, at the southern cusp of the city. But the city’s is located right in the heart of San Bernardino, meaning the county found it was taking in a lot of job-hunting residents from south of downtown.

“Now we’ll be able to really look for a new site that serves the city but is also tasked with serving the outer areas,” says Javier. “And throw real resources at it, in a city that really, really needs more services than we can currently deliver.”

He says they still haven’t pinned down where a new site will be, but in the meantime, city residents can now seek services at both locales. And since the transition started last summer, after the city agency closed, Javier’s office reports it has already given jobs to 99 San Bernardino residents.

As part of the transition, the San Bernardino County’s Workforce Investment Board will now expand its youth services program into the city, build a new career training series with local public schools, host a job fair, and start building up relationships with local businesses — some of the main employers that have benefited from the county’s workforce efforts in the past.

The San Bernardino metropolitan area had a 5.2 percent unemployment rate as of December 2016, according to state of California data that also looked at unemployment in nearby cities Ontario and Riverside. That’s just slightly above California’s unemployment rate of 5 percent, and the country’s 4.5 percent.

But the city has been reported as one of the poorest cities in the state of California — if not the poorest in Southern California. And minorities suffer unemployment and poverty rates at higher rates than their white counterparts.

While he can’t speak to the performance of San Bernardino’s now-defunct employment agency, Javier does know that the county was recognized by the state for having one of the most effective programs in California. Branching out to cover the entire county, instead of just the fringe areas of its biggest city, means they’ll be able to coordinate without worrying about the services overlap they saw between the south job center and the downtown one.

“It just makes complete sense to have a contiguous system that has a unified strategy on how it’s going to serve its job,” he says.

The transition process, given its freshness, will still need some time before it fully wraps up. But the county is about to debut a series of requests-for-proposals, aimed at local community groups and organizers, to contract out its city-based youth services programs.

Javier remembers the glimpses of success he saw prior to this merger, and going forward is eager to bring it down to the city level. There was the drug user who came into a workforce program one day to take the place of his absent friend, and ended up sticking with the program for months before landing a job.

Then there was the small business owner who petitioned the county’s workforce investment board to start rolling out job-training services like those she’d heard about from local fliers and employers — only to learn that the county was the very one rolling out the services that impressed her. She then took advantage of those programs, and says the workforce development board helped her save $10,000 by handling all the training and recruitment work as she tried to fill staff jobs at her fastening company in Chino, California.

“These types of stories come to us every board meeting, and they really help all of us understand the meaning and value of our work,” says Javier. “It tells us we’re doing the right thing.”

St. Louis Aims Big With Jobs Pipeline

(AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

St. Louis and six Midwest cities got a grant from the federal government in January to build up their workforce development programs. And while cities getting funds from D.C. to make more jobs is common throughout the U.S., what’s fascinating about the Missouri city is the types of jobs they’re trying to put low-income and disadvantaged workers into.

Traditionally, workforce development programs have aimed at blue-collar or lower-skill jobs that don’t require a traditional four-year degree: construction, manufacturing and some medical careers. But on top of those industries, St. Louis wants to use the $1 million in federal funds to put 250 workers into financial analyst, software developer and medical records coding jobs.

“People come in and want to become a registered nurse, others want to be truck drivers, but that’s because that’s traditional, that’s all they know,” says Stacey Fowler, the office of innovation and industry engagement manager at the St. Louis Agency on Training and Employment (SLATE). She says interested students think of workforce programs as only having the option to connect with a set pool of employers.

“Yeah, you can become a registered nurse, and everyone knows what that is — but what about cybersecurity?” she says. “We have to expand the vision of our job seekers, and haven’t thought about being a lab tech or working for a bioscience company or a software developer.”

Her city is in a paradox of a position. Unemployment has dropped dramatically since the throes of last decade’s recession, from 9.7 percent in 2009 to 3.5 percent in November 2016. That means there were about 104,000 job seekers in the city as recently as 2013, but that number cut down to 68,000 in 2016.

Factories say they’re struggling to find qualified workers to run their machines. Industry owners across the board seem to share a similar gripe; a recent survey of 478 employers in the region found that about half saw the struggle to find skilled workers as their biggest battle.

But there’s still a pool of people in the city that can get into shape for these industries with a little help from programs like SLATE, and the dropping unemployment rates have affected different communities in different ways. Black unemployment, for example, was at 8 percent in November 2016, and in 2014, black unemployment in St. Louis remained a couple percentage points higher than Missouri’s average for black unemployment.

Yet nearly 47 percent of the entire population of St. Louis is black, indicating there’s a disparity between the population makeup and which communities in the city are benefiting from the unemployment drop.

Fowler wants this new grant announcement to change that. Her organization will be blending this money with past funds through federal job programs, like American Apprentice and TechHire — both of which have just started up within the past year.

American Apprentice encourages workforce development organizations to take the apprenticeship model seen in construction and apply that to other industries too, giving workers hands-on experience while in training. TechHire focuses on putting people from disadvantaged communities into tech-related jobs.

Like the most recent grant round, which will push cities closer toward fulfilling new job training changes that came with the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act in 2014, St. Louis applied for those grants with partner cities across the Midwest region.

What do those cities all have in common? The need to build a stronger connection with local employers so that job trainees go straight to careers, and industry leaders aren’t left with unmanned machines or biomedical labs when the year comes to an end, says Fowler.

“Some employers [tell us they] want people with experience, but if you can’t get a job,” she says, pausing before laughing at the classic chicken-or-egg scenario. With the three federal grant opportunities lumped together, she hopes they’ll be able to build a better pipeline where employers help train the very workers they’ll later employ.

“We’re trying to get away from that ‘train and pray’ model, where you train people and pray they get to work,” she says. Last week she was meeting with a cybersecurity firm and hopes to get an apprenticeship program set up for that industry soon.

“It’s just a win-win for everyone if we can make this model work,” says Fowler.

South L.A. Starts Job Program for Controversial Mixed-Use Development

(Photo by Adrian Miles)

On Jan. 10, a new job training program started up in the South Los Angeles area that anticipates getting 900 unemployed or underemployed residents ready to work on a $1.2 billion mixed-use high-rise called The Reef.

The project itself has been a flashpoint for controversy over claims it will force up the cost of living — and therefore the risk of displacement — for poorer neighborhoods nearby. But even though local advocates like United Neighbors in Defense Against Displacement (UNIDAD) have been pushing for developers and the city to look at its negative costs, Noreen McClendon thinks the benefits far outweigh the bad.

“We haven’t had anything like this since L.A. Live,” says McClendon, executive director of one of the new job program’s backing organizations Concerned Citizens of South Central Los Angeles. She’s referring to an entertainment complex that came with a pioneering community benefits agreement that at least one researcher found has yielded mixed results for the neighborhood.

“It’s an opportunity for us to lift a lot of people out of poverty, with all this concentration of projects in the Ninth District in the next few years,” she says. Unemployment in the South Los Angeles region is around 12 percent, and nearly half of the population lives beneath the federal poverty line.

Los Angeles, like all major U.S. cities, already has a slate of job employment programs. The city’s Economic Development & Workforce Department says its efforts have put 120,000 Angelenos into jobs, and that it works with nearly 1,000 L.A. businesses to make those connections happen.

But according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, the Los Angeles metropolitan area has the highest concentration of poverty among other major U.S. metropolitan areas, and South Los Angeles residents tell McClendon they feel like they’ve gotten the short end of the stick of the city’s pushback on unemployment numbers.

“The tragedy is that our community has been conditioned to believe that there are no opportunities,” says McClendon. “We have a lot of people who have criminal backgrounds, and they’re told over and over again that once you have a felony, you can’t get employment.”

So when a new jobs program like this starts up and the residents she works with get word, they may initially be reluctant. She sees her job as trying to shift that attitude. “We’re trying to change the mentality from a ‘victim’ mentality to a ‘victors’ mentality.’”

That means doing what other workforce development training programs in the area have yet to incorporate, and providing a five-week boot camp for individuals interested in snagging a job at The Reef that trains them in job etiquette, financial accountability and other personal skills. Once they pass through that, they can sit with LA Trade-Tech, the workforce program building the pipeline between the city and The Reef’s developers, and figure out a job training schedule.

McClendon claims the opportunity to train nearly a thousand low-income workers from the Ninth District, which stretches from Downtown to just past the South Park neighborhood, in construction may never come again in the heavily urbanized area. “Just because there’s not going to be enough land to develop” after the project. In total, developers say it will create 2,700 construction jobs and 592 permanent jobs.

So she’s working with the city, developers and another local organization, the Coalition for Responsible Development, on an outreach campaign that she says will reach 1,600 people in South L.A. to let them know that this new program is up and running. They’re speaking with civic groups with deep connections to neighborhoods and unions, and even visiting events that are a staple of the community like the Taste of Soul food fest.

Right now, they’ve only got seven participants in the initial boot camp phase that started up last week. But McClendon says this current run is like a barometer reading for things to come. “It’s going wonderfully,” she says. “There were people there who actually had part-time work already, but they scheduled to come in on their off days.”

She hopes this new model will make developers and employers look to L.A.’s Ninth District in the future when it comes to filling jobs.

“This is not a philanthropic endeavor here. It’s a business proposition,” she says. “When they get to you as an employer, they’ll get something. And now I’ll actually be going to meetings with contractors and subcontractors so that as they come on board, they’re aware: These people are ready.”