For almost 140 years, The Salvation Army has been lifting up Americans in need — the hungry, the homeless, those struggling with addiction, people in every zip code who are challenged by poverty. We have seen firsthand the transformative power of dignified, stable work.
Work is increasingly becoming a requirement for many forms of government assistance, from Medicaid to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, among others. Both the Trump administration and Congress are creating new provisions for work requirements across a broad range of means-tested public assistance programs. Also, a new executive order calls for the consolidation or elimination of federal workforce development programs.
My work at The Salvation Army over the past 40 years has introduced me to some of the hardest-working people I’ve ever met. But many of them are working in low-wage jobs. They face barriers that must be overcome before they can fully enter the labor market. We need to work together — government, nonprofits and businesses — to improve the quantity and quality of work for all.
Many low-skilled workers, the “working poor,” have fluctuating hours, some working more than one part-time job. The ability to consistently log the hours required to qualify for government benefits can be beyond their control. We must encourage businesses to treat these employees fairly by assigning flexible schedules and, in some cases, more hours.
The recently incarcerated are particularly challenged in finding work. Studies show that 60% to 75% of former inmates are unemployed a year after being released. With more than an estimated 85% of employers now conducting background checks, people with felony records may find it nearly impossible to obtain work. Again, we’re collaborating with employers and employees to remove the barriers that many face, once they have served their time.
Two areas need special focus in the coming months and years. First, we need to double down on funding for case management, or holistic assistance to individuals and families based on their unique situations. Case management is a critical component in helping people achieve and maintain self-sufficiency.
The Salvation Army works toward these goals in several ways across the country. In Napa Valley, a culinary training academy helps people who have struggled with homelessness and substance abuse develop kitchen skills and establish meaningful employment in local hospitality industries while instilling professionalism, confidence and dignity. In Minneapolis, The Salvation Army’s Volunteer Aftercare Support Team helps former prison inmates transitioning back into society secure employment. Volunteers provide one-on-one counseling, offering expert advice in the areas of résumé writing, job searching, technology training and career coaching.
Recently in Baltimore, we opened DMG (Doing the Most Good) Foods, The Salvation Army’s first grocery store. Not only will the store meet a desperate need for fresh food in its neighborhood, but also it will train some 80 people a year in the skills of the grocery industry — from food handling and butchering to the logistics of buying and selling fresh, frozen and canned foods. By agreement with the six largest grocers operating in Baltimore, newly trained individuals will be offered employment in for-profit grocery stores thereafter.
We applaud efforts to break the cycles of poverty that entrap millions of Americans over generations. The Salvation Army encourages work as vital and noble. But before requiring work, we must confront the barriers to obtaining it that many Americans face.