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Dave and Liane Phillips — self-described Midwestern “upper middle class suburbanites”— believed “even the most troubled person could soar if you gave them wings.”  In response to the skyrocketing poverty rates of the 1980s and 90s in their hometown of Cincinnati, the couple founded the poverty-to-work program, Cincinnati Works, in 1996.  The nonprofit has since received numerous awards and honors, and is the inspiration for the recently published book, Why Don’t They Just Get a Job: One Couple’s Mission to End Poverty in Their Community.

Mr. Phillips, a successful corporate auditor, and retired teacher, Mrs. Phillips, sought to eliminate poverty by helping chronically unemployed people not only get jobs in regional positions, but retain and advance in them.  For both philosophical and practical reasons the founders decided not to seek government funding.  Aside from the bureaucratic challenges, government money “was available only if you were serving people receiving public assistance. Yet our research revealed that only 40 percent of people living in poverty in our region were getting any kind of public assistance.”  Cincinnati Works is a United Way agency (United Way receives some federal funding), but otherwise operates entirely from private donations.

Over the years, the Phillips came to realize the crushing difficulties men and women in poverty—especially generational poverty—actually face.  The necessities for even getting a job—access to reliable transportation, an address, childcare, bank services, identity cards, and physical and mental health—simply didn’t exist for whole communities of people.  Legal aid was also essential.  Compounded with the “harassment that people in poor communities experienced at the hands of the police,” many members had unaddressed violation records and were thus ineligible for employment.  Because so many pieces of people’s lives were frail, any small setback could set off a crisis not only for individuals but for spheres of dependent family members.

In Why Don’t They Just Get a Job, Liane Philips and Echo Montgomery Garrett document how the jobs program evolved into a suite of services.  It turned out that mental health, spiritual counseling (they hired a nun, Sister Jeanne Marie), legal aid, individualized mentoring, and emergency relief for basic needs were all needed for job readiness.  This support was usually necessary for a good few years before people living in such fragile situations could become “self-sufficient,” or 200 perecent above the poverty level.  Communication and collaboration with employers was also essential.

The story of Cincinnati Works, written in 2009, is optimistic.  The nonprofit’s successful model of “careful research and thoughtful response” seemed to persist in offering hope to “people society had written off as being beyond hope”—even two years into an economy of record job losses and fewer job openings.  The program boasted an 80-plus percent retention rate (versus 20-25 percent for government-funded programs), thousands of dollars saved to businesses in retention costs, and millions of dollars saved in public assistance programs.  Businesses, agencies, communities, funders, and other nonprofits, including the Harvard Business Review, were hailing Cincinnati Works as the most revolutionary and repeatable program anywhere.  Unsurprisingly, Mr. Phillips was being asked to help several other communities set up similar programs around the country.

When I finished reading the book, I wondered how the staff and members of the organization were faring today, two years later.  The recession has hit African American communities like urban Cincinnati hard.  Since the start of the recession in 2007, unemployment opportunities and wages have disappeared faster for African Americans than for other groups. And home ownership and retirement savings rates fell faster as well.  In the book, jobs with health benefits were deemed the best jobs for Cincinnati Works members because a majority of them suffered from depression and health problems.  Yet health coverage rates have also been falling precipitously for African Americans since 2007.  Was Cincinnati Works still offering hope in 2011?

The annual report on the nonprofit's Web site was from 2009.  I contacted the organization to request a more recent report and was honored to get a call back from the very personable co-founder, Dave Phillips.  Mr. Phillips graciously addressed a series of questions over the phone.

Are your employment numbers and retention numbers for 2010-2011 indicative of the recession—are they down and by how much?

Mr. Phillips reported that retention numbers have actually gone up from 83 to 85 percent this past year.  Because of the recession, however, about a third less people are hired. In good times, “six to eight hundred families” get employment; in recessionary times, “four to six hundred families” get work.  The reason for this lower number is that “jobs don’t turn over as much. Core employers hire less—they are hiring 5 people instead of 10.” In this climate, Cincinnati Works has to “allocate more resources to the employer side of the house, we have to find more employers” and have to spend more resources on the services the nonprofit provides (free-of-charge) to employers such as screening and background checks.  “We have been in business for 15 years.  We have typically not had a problem with jobs.  Two-thousand-eight was the first year we had more seekers than jobs.”

Can you share some of your experiences or insights that might help a reader understand what the recession has actually meant for some of your members?

Mr. Phillips observes that the chronically unemployed are a unique population.  Many job seekers they serve, for example, are in their thirties or older and have never been able to retain a job because of various barriers.  Unlike other populations during a recession, there are not big shifts in employment numbers with this group, regardless of region.

Throughout the book, the best jobs for your members seem to be those with health benefits because many members need to address physical and mental health issues.  Is it harder to stay employed and be self-sufficient in a job without health benefits?

“Sixty percent of our members have chronic depression or anxiety—this is a monumental issue for this population.”  As a result, “we only work with employers that offer health benefits.”  “Early on we didn’t realize how important health benefits were.  It was strange for me at first.”  Many employers offered jobs with “multiple wage scales”—a job seeker could “choose a job for $8 an hour with benefits or $10 an hour without.  We don’t work with employers that have multiple wage scales for employment anymore.”

Sixty percent of Cincinnati Works members also have children.  Parents will often forgo seeking care for themselves, but they will still take their children for health care services.

Mr. Phillips explained why health benefits are essential for their core employers as well.  If an employee doesn’t have health benefits, they have to use public health services.  Public health services don’t provide appointments.  An employee may wait all day or longer to see a physician.  “If an employee has a first-shift job and can get the appointment and be back after lunch” or if their private doctor has evening hours, then an employee may only miss a couple hours of work.  “Scheduling of appointments has to accommodate employers”—it is a “quality issue.”

Child care and transportation are vital to getting and keeping a job.  Has the recession had an impact on available childcare and transportation services in your area?

Phillips said they have seen some consolidation of bus services but nothing too significant so far.  “We track the local bus schedule.” He does worry that state support for child care “will be put under pressure.”

How are the charities with which you partner faring?

Cincinnati Works partners with fourteen other nonprofits in “barrier-removal” kinds of activities.  “To date we haven’t had a partner that has had to pull back on their services.”  All these organizations “have private funding sources as well.”

What has happened in the past, however, was a need for more legal advocate services.  When the local legal aid service couldn’t keep up with the needs of the community, Cincinnati Works came up with the money and paid the equivalent of a half-time salary to the legal aid.  “We paid” part of the salary for the legal aid employee at the organization—“it really helped them out, and it really helped us out. It was totally cost effective.”  “We do that all the time.”

How many members leave the Cincinnati area to get a better job?  Are all your core employers in and for the Cincinnati area?

“Members don’t travel—the end of the bus line” is as far as they usually are able to go.  “They are not a mobile population.”

Mr. Phillips explained that in every one of the 250 urban centers in America, about 7-11 percent of the population is chronically unemployed.  As such, they have never been counted in the work force and have never been counted in unemployment numbers.  Thirty-five year old members are counted (or not counted) the same as a high school graduate who has never had a job. “So numbers of 9-10 percent unemployment? Add another 7-11 percent in normal times. The unemployment numbers are actually double what is reported.”

Your organization seems to be able to pursue data about the people and employers you serve and then respond with appropriate services.  What is the “data” about the recession telling you?  What changes are you making?  How are you responding?  What is working?

Cincinnati Works collects “lots of data” about their customer base.  “We know what employers are seeking, and what their specific needs are from week to week.  All of our investors expect us to be efficient.  If you don’t know your customer base, you won’t be in business.”

“The recession is making it tougher for our members to get employed.  We are proud of the results we are getting—500 placements in a year when its hard to get jobs.”

“We have a saying at Cincinnati Works: positive discontent. A few years back we were told we wouldn’t get above sixty percent <retention rate>. The current 85 percent retention rate is a phenomenal rate.  It also means that for every 100 people there are 15 unemployed people.  Eighty-five percent is a B.  We want to be an A+.   The only acceptable retention rate is 100 percent.  If we don’t try, we won’t get there.  If we try, we may get there.  Positive discontent is a powerful tool in the work we are doing.”

Positive discontent is perhaps another way to say hope.

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