Pearl #22: Employment is Key to Breaking Out of Poverty and Staying Out of Prison

Throughout the year, our blog series “Pearls: 30 Lessons Learned on Our 30 Year Journey will be featuring lessons we’ve learned as an organization throughout the past three decades. These “pearls,” as we call them, illuminate how we’ve survived and thrived for 30 years. 

The Impact of Long-term Employment

Last year, Angela Rachidi, one of the scholars at American Enterprise Institute, released an interesting report. In a broad study of people in the US, she found that long-term employment radically decreases poverty. Of course, on the surface this makes sense. But the numbers were fascinating. She defined long-term employed as 36 months or more, which didn’t feel overly long to me. For those who worked 36 months or more, the incidence of poverty was only 2.6%. Remarkable. 

We Oversimplify the Cause of Poverty 

Often our communities simplify persistent poverty as occurring merely because people have low or no income. But that simplistic view overlooks the fact that the best way to impact the income of those living in poverty is productive employment. Productive employment looks like a career entry-level job with an opportunity for advancement and benefits, and where the employer cares that she comes to work each day. It is the kind of job she will keep and at which she will prosper. It is the kind of job graduated from the Bean Project move into upon graduation.  

Placeholder Jobs vs. Productive Employment 

Recently, one of the women in the program, who is preparing for graduation, was offered a job at a convenience store. She liked the shift she was offered and the hourly wage was reasonable. But as she reflected more on what she wanted for her life, she realized that while this might be a job she could keep for a little while, it did not do anything to help her move toward her future. It was a placeholder job. Placeholder jobs don’t inspire people to stay for 36 months, ultimately helping them dramatically decrease their likelihood of living in poverty. Grace took a brave step and turned down the job and went back to work to find another opportunity.  

A Link Between Employment and Recidivism 

There is also a proven link between employment and decreased recidivism, or returns to prison. Each year over half a million people are released from prisons and jails across the US. Unfortunately, within three years at least two thirds are rearrested. Clearly, this is an important issue that must be addressed.  

A combined study with America Works, a private workforce development firm and The Manhattan Institute found that employment does, indeed, decrease recidivism, and the key is to ensure employment occurs right away upon release. They found another dramatic difference for those employed right away upon release. This research, conducted in several states where America Works operates, showed recidivism rates ranging from 31 to 70 percent. But recidivism for those placed in jobs shortly have their release was only 3.3 to eight percent. Again, remarkable. 

Piloting an In-Reach Program 

At the Bean Project we have recently increased our relationship with the corrections system by piloting an in-reach program into the women’s prison in Denver. Women who have release dates within the upcoming 120 days are invited to attend a Women’s Bean Project information session in the prison and then apply, be interviewed and receive a job offer prior to their release from prison. Our hope is that by working with the team in the Department of Corrections, alongside other resources the women will need upon release, we can greatly enhance the likelihood of each woman’s long term success. Certainly, research supports these attempts. 

These two outcomes, decreased poverty and decreased recidivism as a result of employment, combine to make me believe even more strongly that the solution Women’s Bean Project seeks to deploy is ever-powerful. Employment IS the key to breaking out of poverty and staying out of prison. This idea is fundamental to our theory of change. Decreasing poverty and incarceration affects more than just the woman. It has a ripple effect that extends beyond the woman to her family, friends and to our community as a whole.  

Written by Tamra Ryan, CEO

Find the entire series of “Pearls: Lessons Learned on Our 30 Year Journey: HERE

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