GIVING | Sep 14, 2023

Overcoming underemployment: Helping restore the dignity of work

The United States is known around the world as a bastion of economic mobility – a place where anyone can become anything. But with nearly 40 million* Americans living below the poverty line and another 100 million** struggling to make ends meet in low-income households, the American Dream seems to be in contrast with many Americans’ realities.

The problem of poverty in America is likely more complicated than you think.

To get to the root of poverty, you have to think about the factors that cause it – lack of community support, economic instability, inequality. But the factor with the most immediate effect on poverty, as it relates to economic mobility, is employment. And it’s not just any type of employment that brings economic mobility.

The latest jobs report may boast of unexpected growth that looks like success, but it doesn’t tell us the whole story. It fails to address the growing problem in our country that is keeping nearly half of all Americans living at or below the poverty line. The problem isn’t just unemployment; it’s underemployment.

Full employment that provides a living wage is essential for stability and human flourishing, but this pathway to economic stability doesn’t exist for many and is more difficult for some to access than others.

Should Christians help?

Work was one of God’s original gifts to men and women. God placed man in the garden to work and care for it, to have dominion over it. Though God was the Creator and Owner of everything, stewardship of the garden was for the people God created, and they were invited to enjoy the fruit of it. God had worked to create the earth, and when they worked the garden, Adam and Eve reflected God’s image and flourished.

It is only in a fallen world that the joy of work and the ability for it to lead to flourishing isn’t available to all people (Genesis 3:19). When we, as Christians, participate in bringing people to flourishing, we bring God’s kingdom to earth, one employed person at a time. The Bible tells us not to withhold good from people when it is within our power to act. Surely, it is within some of our power to help people find jobs that provide a livable wage. But many of the jobs and workplace ministries NCF givers support are going beyond that.

A Providence Network graduate and her two young children

Pathways to poverty

Amanda arrived at a domestic violence shelter with her two small children and only a few belongings. She had made a split-second decision to escape when her abusive partner left to buy cigarettes. Her face still bleeding from his latest attack, she grabbed what she could in the seven minutes she knew it would take him to return. But part of his abuse had been to keep her home, to not allow her to work. How would she provide for herself and her children? Who was going to take a chance on hiring a 20-year-old single mom with two young kids, no education, and no work experience?

Martha, a single mother and African refugee, came to this country with a master’s degree in information technology and extensive experience in the field. However, she found herself homeless, living in a shelter for single moms. Her job prospects were limited because Martha lacked the social capital needed to be connected to a good job.

“There exists bias in the workforce,” says Helen Young Hayes, founder and CEO of Activate Work, a Denver-based nonprofit that recruits, trains, and connects diverse, qualified talent to leading employers. “There exists bias in hiring decisions, bias in promotion decisions, etc.” This gets to the heart of the problem: “Do we view people as asset-rich, regardless of their race and ethnicity and economic status, or do we harbor some hidden biases that cause us to choose?”

In 2009, the last time we saw the annual unemployment rate rise as sharply as it did in 2020, the recovery of the job market came with a significant shift in the type of work available. The fields with the most job growth were those with lower wages, leaving workers who had lost high-wage jobs in the Great Recession scrambling to make ends meet and causing the number of Americans living in poverty to reach the highest levels since the Census Bureau started collecting data in 1959.

Disparately, the 2020 recession saw a significant decrease in lower-wage jobs: jobs which required employees to be face-to-face with consumers, jobs which could not transition to work-from-home environments. Today, while the unemployment rate is dropping, most of the fastest-growing occupations require skilled labor, even post-graduate degrees, exacerbating an already significant increase in income inequality.

Hayes says 75 percent of the good jobs – the family-sustaining jobs – require a post-secondary degree. And yet, only 30 percent of people in her state complete college at all, and only 16 percent of low-income individuals graduate with a degree. “There’s an educational and training gap,” Hayes says, “and it leads to persistent inequality.”

Devin Gilliam, graduate of Blue Jacket, is now the sales manager for the Tall Rabbit Coffee Shop.

Facing the nearly impossible

So how do we start to close that gap between the wage earners in the top 10 percent and those Americans living in poverty? How do we ensure that all Americans are able to earn a living wage and afford to live in their communities?

Nancy Slyter is senior development officer of Cross Purpose, another Colorado-based nonprofit which works to abolish relational, economic, and spiritual poverty through jobs and community. She says we need to stop asking, “How do we help someone in poverty?” and insteadask, “How do we help someone out of poverty?”

The obvious answer to that question is work. Get a job. But it’s not always so simple.

Derek Kuykendall, CEO of Providence Network, a mentoring and recovery organization in Denver, references the most recent self-sufficiency standard for his state. “A single mom with two kids needs to make $35 to $50 an hour in order to be completely self-sufficient.”

To achieve this, Kuykendall says, she would need to get a GED, an associate degree, a bachelor’s degree, and possibly a graduate degree in STEM or health care. “You’re talking about a six- to eight-year journey for that single mom, whose life changes a lot during that time. It’s easy to get really hopeless.”

And it’s not just single moms in Colorado who are struggling.

In nearly every U.S. state, the median household income is significantly lower than the amount calculated to be that state’s living wage. (That’s the minimum income necessary for a worker to meet their basic needs. You can calculate for your state here.) It’s not simply lack of access to a job; it’s lack of access to a job with a salary a person can live on.

Oftentimes, those living in poverty are holding resumes that, in a hiring manager’s eyes, immediately disqualify them from these higher-wage jobs. Who wants to take a chance on someone with a criminal record? On a young mom with no work history? On a candidate who would require special accommodations?

What’s the benefit for the employer?

“The benefit is that you have a very loyal employee who feels valued, who will be there on time every day, rain or shine, many times in the snow.” They will be there because someone has taken a chance on them when no one else would, says Tony Hudson, executive director and founder of Blue Jacket, a job training and placement agency in Fort Wayne, IN.

Helen Young Hayes coaches one of ActivateWork’s talented clients.

Pathways out of poverty

There is an unspoken misperception among employers that low-income equals low quality. But that’s simply not true. “This isn’t a lazy individual,” Slyter says. “This is just someone who might have complex circumstances that have put them there. And so we really just need to have open hearts and open minds in the way we approach people who are suffering.”

Organizations like Blue Jacket, ActivateWork, Providence Network, and Cross Purpose work with highly motivated people who are determined to move from economic struggle to economic freedom. They offer programs aimed at developing marketable skills, boosting self-esteem, and building community – everything an individual might need to overcome barriers to gainful employment.

These organizations are spanning the gap between less-skilled workers who, for a variety of reasons, appear undesirable to employers and an economy shifting toward jobs that require more skilled labor.

“In Colorado alone, there are 25,000 open cyber jobs, and at the rate with which we are equipping people with comp sci college degrees, it’ll take us 22 years to fill those gaps,” Hayes says.

This is why, in 2022, ActivateWork shifted its focus to providing an intensive 15-week IT training bootcamp where low-income individuals are trained and equipped with industry-recognized credentials and certifications.

“We are building the IT workforce with individuals who have historically been underrepresented in IT,” Hayes says, “Meaning low-income individuals, people of color, immigrants and refugees, women, and other underrepresented communities…. It’s one of those rare win-wins.”

These programs are not only catalysts for economic mobility in low-income communities – they are also a win for the economy.

“We’ve brought $14.4 million back into the economy,” Slyter says of Cross Purpose graduates. “That’s through earned income, paid taxes, and decreases in government benefits. Cross Purpose’s graduates are helping others by eliminating poverty in their own families, creating generational wealth, ending the cycle of poverty, and being role models for their children and neighbors.”

Jaylynn, a Cross Purpose graduate, celebrates the launch into her new career as a peer and family specialist.

Closing the gap

Amanda had some deep emotional wounds, but she knew her kids needed stability and decided to be brave. She went through job training and entrepreneurial training while living in apartments provided by Providence Network. Now, she runs her own cleaning business. She’s self-sufficient, she’s safe, and her kids are doing well.

Despite her high level of education and IT skills, Martha had been looking for a part-time job at a shipping warehouse. But Activate Work placed her in one of the largest firms in Colorado. Her role is challenging and rewarding, and she’s already contemplating her next job move – a position that pays more than $100,000 a year.

Most people want to lower the poverty rate in America. Many communities have shown compassion, holding food drives, coat drives, toy drives. We volunteer at soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and thrift stores. And these are good for meeting immediate needs. But we also need to focus on the root of the problem. We need to see the true value of every individual, invest in those most commonly overlooked, and help everyone work toward flourishing.

“We all have that experience where we see a person holding a sign at the intersection,” Kuykendall says. “Every one of those people is a child of God. They have a story, and it’s probably not as simple as you think.”

If you’d like to give to these or other organizations working to provide meaningful employment to fellow Americans, you can search your Giving Fund in the jobs and workplace category.

Images used with permission.

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NCF helps people create a giving strategy based on biblical principles, so they can be wise stewards of all they have and experience the joy of greater generosity.

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