The Washington, DC region is great >> and it can be greater.


Workforce development can solve poverty in DC

The challenge of poverty in DC can feel overwhelming. What can any one person do? Experts largely agree that workforce development is the solution, and the good news is that you can have a big impact.

Photo by mnd.ctrl on Flickr.

Workforce development is the systematic removal of barriers to employment, whatever they may be, that jobless residents face. There are many stereotypes about the causes of poverty in DC. Examining the true causes of poverty shows why workforce development matters so much, and why it deserves far more attention than it gets.

The initially-apparent causes of poverty are unemployment and underemployment. But what personal or systematic barriers to employment do jobless people face? You may be surprised to learn what they are.

The root problems of poverty may not be what you think

Joblessness in DC is due to poor workforce readiness, not lack of jobs. Martha Ross, a Brookings Institute fellow who leads research on DC, notes that the city has more jobs than residents and is located in an economically strong region. That means our primary lever to reduce unemployment and poverty isn't adding more jobs, it's workforce development.

"We're in a relatively fortunate position: we have jobs to connect people to or train them for," says Ross. "We're not like other cities or regions that are hemorrhaging jobs."

Despite this, elected officials talk about creating jobs for DC residents far more than they talk about workforce development. We could do so much to improve our broken workforce development system if we only had the will to do it.

So, what needs fixing? Some people assume that the issue is those who provide workforce training, but that's not true. If a lack of skills were the only barrier to employment faced by poor people, DC would not have a poverty crisis.

Most jobless and underemployed residents have more obstacles to full employment than occupational skills. Major obstacles to employment are lack of child care, lack of literacy and basic adult education, soft skills, lack of transportation, addiction issues, and barriers to hiring citizens returning from prison.

Unemployment is an assault on one's dignity. All of these barriers may cause unemployed people to lose their sense of agency and empowerment, something that most working residents take for granted. This creates the greatest challenge to public policy, but it is one for which there are proven solutions.

How can workforce development help?

It's understandable that we would want to focus on helping the unemployed who are motivated to help themselves. The reality, though, is that doing so won't solve the crisis of poverty. But there are proven solutions to addressing the poverty of hope that holds back those with multiple barriers to employment.

  1. Integrating literacy, basic education with skills training
  2. Literacy and adult basic education are usually considered prerequisites to occupational skills training. Not surprisingly, completion rates for literacy and basic education courses are low. They take a long time to complete, and people struggling with a loss of empowerment may be reluctant to put in the effort.

    There is a better way. In 2004, Washington state piloted a new model: integrated basic education and occupational skills training. It's more expensive, because it requires two instructors. Literacy and basic education are taught in the context of a specific occupation. But it works.

    The program, called I-BEST, greatly improved completion rates for basic education and was expanded statewide in 2006. Many states have created their own I-BEST programs, which are often provided through community colleges. In Maryland, both Montgomery College and Prince George's Community College have successful I-BEST programs.

    Meanwhile, the University of the District of Columbia Community College (UDC-CC) still provides separate basic education and occupational skills training according to the old model. And literacy services, which are contracted by DC's State Superintendent of Education, are also disconnected from occupational training.

  3. Pre- and post-employment wraparound services
  4. DC agencies offer many services to address obstacles to employment, like childcare, literacy, transportation, and skills training. Unfortunately, they are often hard to find, require repeated visits at all hours to offices around town, and require providing duplicate paperwork that is sometimes lost. As a result, these services often go to the jobless who need them the least because they possess the drive to navigate this system.

    The unemployed poor need a one-stop delivery model of wraparound services. Federal law requires every state to establish One-Stop centers to disribute federal training grants to the unemployed. But DC's One-Stops are in desperate need of reform.

    Numerous studies point to long waiting times for services at DC's One-Stop centers. And a report leaked earlier this year showed the consequences: lots of jobless come to the One-Stops for help, but very few receive services.

    "Effective One-Stop centers often have strong partnerships with social service providers", according to Brooke DeRenzis of DC Appleseed, who led a study of DC's One-Stops this year. "In some cases, partner organizations that provide services like public assistance or housing may even locate staff at the One-Stop center", an arrangement that doesn't exist in DC's One-Stops.

    In addition, UDC-CC has been unwilling to provide any user-friendly wraparound services. The UDC-CC president actually told a Council hearing last month that "job placement is not part of our mission". Unfortunately, even their core services of class registration have proven inaccessible, with reports of lost paperwork and long waiting periods.

  5. Outcomes reporting
  6. There are dozens of workforce development programs spread across 13 DC agencies, but little reporting on the outcomes of those programs. Reliable reporting would expose the ineffectiveness of isolated point programs that don't follow the models described above.

    Outcomes reporting should focus not in individual job training programs, but on the One-Stops and UDC Community College. (See Update below for UDC-CC reports.) That's because these are the agencies that should coordinate training with other services to help jobless overcome all barriers to employment.

    The lack of outcomes reporting is particularly tragic given how readily available it is. The employment status and salary of every employed DC resident is easily accessible in DC's unemployment insurance database, which is integrated with those of neighboring states.

What you can do

How can you take effective action to help solve poverty in DC? For starters, you can volunteer with organizations that use best practices. Look for organizations that provide integrated basic education and skills training, wraparound services, and report their outcomes.

One example is So Others Might Eat, or SOME. This organization uses the I-BEST co-teaching model in their Center for Employment Training, and provides wraparound services to clients and tracking of graduates for reporting purposes.

You can also advocate for reform of OSSE literacy services, UDC Community College, One-Stops and our outcomes reporting system at many venues. You can email your councilmember or testify at one of several hearings each year on workforce development and adult education.

The next hearing, on September 27, concerns UDC. Come testify about the urgency of reforming the UDC Community College as described above. You can follow DC Council hearings on their online calendar, or email me and I'll keep you informed of upcoming hearings on workforce development where you can testify.

Update: While UDC-CC is not required to produce outcomes reporting, it turns out that they do anyway and, to their great credit, posted the reports to their site yesterday.

Ken Archer is CTO of a software firm in Tysons Corner. He commutes to Tysons by bus from his home in Georgetown, where he lives with his wife and son. Ken completed a Masters degree in Philosophy from The Catholic University of America. 


Add a comment »

I see you mentioned transportation. For many jobs at the low end of the economic spectrum, that means having a car. A car also helps with some of the wraparound issues like access to child care.

But will the urbanists ever support a program that provides assistance to purchase and maintain private automobiles?

We'll see...

by dcdriver on Aug 19, 2013 1:53 pm • linkreport

For many jobs at the low end of the economic spectrum, that means having a car.

That's a bold claim to make with very little evidence.

by drumz on Aug 19, 2013 2:03 pm • linkreport

"But will the urbanists ever support a program that provides assistance to purchase and maintain private automobiles?

We'll see..."

If one were proposed that was specifically targeted at employment availability, and wasn't simply being used as a strawman to jab at urbanists, I'm sure many of us would be interested. I think forms of carsharing designed to support commuting by low wage workers would be particularly interesting.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Aug 19, 2013 2:15 pm • linkreport

but meanwhile there are jobs (not requiring college) in parts of DC easily accessible by transit to the low income parts of DC, that are routinely filled by workers from the suburbs. I would say that suggests that dealing with workforce development is about far more than transportation.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Aug 19, 2013 2:17 pm • linkreport

Outside of DC, I totally agree a lot of workplaces are unreachable without cars. Within the city, a car is not required for most jobs. Some areas like delivery jobs or those requiring fieldwork or those starting ending shifts between say 1am and 5am may require a car but that doesnt at all constitute the bulk of lower wage jobs in the city.

In general though I can't think of a place in the city that is unreachable with a reasonable combo of walking/biking/transit. A bigger barrier is almost certainly people's inability to find stable/affordable housing in the area. If you don't have a job and no one to stay with how are you going to save up $1000-1500 or whatever minimum for a months rent + security deposit.

by Alan B. on Aug 19, 2013 2:25 pm • linkreport

But dcdriver in a round about way brings up a point which is somewhat contentious in international development circles which is that poor people don't have access to finance (not the contentious part) and that microlending can be a very successful way of overcoming that barrier. It is certainly probably a better alternative than most of the predatory lower end payday lenders.

by Alan B. on Aug 19, 2013 2:31 pm • linkreport

That said, it may be easier to get to a lot of jobs with a car v. transit (but certainly not impossible). That doesn't equal to an argument for just providing people with cars.

But again, that's tangential to the overall question. If you focus on workforce development then all of a sudden you're solving the problem of only have a skill set that limits you to a few places.

Conversely, plenty of jobs that require a lot of education are also in transit unfriendly places.

by drumz on Aug 19, 2013 2:36 pm • linkreport

I completely agree with the need to revamp UDC and its potential in this area. Community colleges around the country have become economic engines for large and small communities alike. Specifically I would like to see UDC's mission refocused away from its effort to continue to be a full fledged university. The university currently suffers from mismanagement, poor funding, and high drop out rates.

A strong well managed community college could easily become a driver in DC to help bridge the gap from the DC public school system into a full fledged university while at the same time providing associates degrees, trade training, IT training, work force development, etc. for those who aren't interested in pursuing a full college degree, are changing professions, or are in need of adult education services.

by John Handcock on Aug 19, 2013 3:03 pm • linkreport

Microlending is great, but, like the basic skills training and jump-through-hoops-to-get-services in the article, it mostly benefits the small minority of poor people who already have an entrepreneurial spirit. Unlocking that hidden potential is a powerful thing to do, but it won't solve the problems of poor people whose greatest barriers are internal.

by Erica on Aug 19, 2013 4:25 pm • linkreport

For the record, the new official name of the One Stops - per the US Department of Labor - is "American Jobs Centers." I just wanted people to understand that when they see "American Jobs Centers" or "AJC," that's what is being described.

by Marina Streznewski on Aug 19, 2013 4:34 pm • linkreport

Microlending has not been unequivocally successful. In some places, it has turned into a cycle of debt because businesses don't evolve into self-sufficiency. In other places, it sometimes has supported people who make loans to those who don't qualify at interest.

If the management is too intrusive (i.e., too aggressively avoid the above), then it becomes another degrading program that fails to provide dignity to those who make good use of it. Significantly, the efforts in the US have been spotty, although enterprises as community development startegies have a long history here.

Perhaps more useful are cash transfer programs that enable people to build capital while, for example, being paid to attend some vocational program, although these kinds of programs have had limited evaluation.

The problems of long-term unemployment are multi-component: workplace skills, learning how to interview, dealing with frustrations that make it easy to quit work, etc. There is past history with what works and what doesn't from poverty programs in the 60s and 70s which mostly is ignored. Stand alone training programs generally succeed less than those where training is integrated into a workplace. Some private sector employers got involved in employment programs in the past--Ford once had a very large program which worked with parts suppliers and others with tributary relationships with them.

As glad as I am to see some attention to something other than the very middle class view that predominates here, the problems are large in scope and require more sustained attention, funding and investigations of past efforts than usually happens. Funders and the public want simple fixes which by their nature are doomed to failure.

by Rich on Aug 19, 2013 6:45 pm • linkreport

Great article.

One thing though, "Experts largely agree that workforce development is the solution" sounds like a bit of an oversimplification...

First, lots of barriers in a worker's life are not usually subsumed under "workforce development"; things like addiction or malnutrition or prior criminal convictions. So it's a little misleading to use workforce development in a such a broad sense like that I think.

Second, as you've noted in previous columns, there are lots of full-time jobs out there that don't get the worker out of poverty. Whether those workers are "under-employed" is kind of subjective--and someone is probably going to end up doing them right? Workforce development by itself unlikely to improve conditions in those jobs, which after all aren't going away just because a few people find better jobs.

But I completely agree this approach is way underemphasized, and I appreciate the point that the problem is not the number of jobs per se. And the point that some workforce development is effective, some is not, and there are best practices to ensure that it is.

by George on Aug 19, 2013 6:54 pm • linkreport

DC driver: I agree a car is a necessity for many jobs at the lower end of the spectrum. At the same time, cars are very expensive, especially if you arent earning a lot of money. So, we should ask
(1) Why are such jobs car-dependent?
(2) What can be done to help access to jobs?
For example, in NYC someone developed a super cheap van service that commuted people from the burbs into low wage jobs in the city.

by SJE on Aug 19, 2013 7:41 pm • linkreport

Worker-owned business training is becoming an increasingly valuable workforce development tool in many areas as well...As the Ohio Employee Ownership Center says - Worker-ownership … is a dynamic and proven tool for business and wealth creation/retention. Years of research have proven its effectiveness in greater profitability and productivity, and it anchors jobs and capital in our communities.

by Sally Stevens on Aug 19, 2013 9:34 pm • linkreport

Great article but even programs that use the I-BEST model with the literacy and occupational skills training combined have entrance criteria that individuals must meet. We partner with SOME and others and can certainly attest to their great work, however,there are individuals whose skills sets still require even greater remediation and I would hope that they are not forgotten in the workforce development continuum. There are pipeline programs such as ours and other OSSE sub-grantees that serve those individuals. I certainly agree with the need for reforms and greater transparency but I would hope that it is always mindful of the broad spectrum. On another note, the current scheduled date of the hearings is in line with Adult and Family Education week with a variety of events scheduled to heighten awareness of this critical problem in our city.

by Valarie Ashley on Aug 20, 2013 9:09 am • linkreport

Per the point about the transit accessibility of jobs. . . I did some research on that last year.
The point about housing affordability is right on - housing costs in transit-rich neighborhoods are out of reach of most low-skill workers and many mid-skill workers. So that's a big barriers that falls into the "smart growth/urban planning" domain.

There are also other barriers not in the physical/infrastructure domain. Graduates of DC public schools may be poorly prepared for the labor market or post-secondary education, particularly damaging in the Washington region’s highly-educated labor market. Less-skilled District workers are also competing with suburban workers, many of whom have established networks and connections to employers like hotels and hospitals. For instance, the largely non-unionized hotel workforce in the suburbs acts as sort of a farm team for the higher-wage hotel jobs in the District, which serves to bypass District job applicants who may be qualified but lack experience. Additionally, because the labor market is so saturated with workers and job seekers with Bachelor’s degrees, a four-year degree can become a default hiring criteria, even for positions that may not technically require it, such as administrative workers.

So a truly comprehensive approach would preserve/develop affordable housing near transit and job centers, as well as creating stronger employment and career pathways linking education (sometimes basic literacy and math) with occupational skills training and work readiness, aligned with regional labor market needs and developed with strong employer input (including internships and other work-based learning opportunities.)

You know, no big deal.

by Martha Ross on Aug 20, 2013 10:21 am • linkreport


For example, in NYC someone developed a super cheap van service that commuted people from the burbs into low wage jobs in the city.

Some of those exist in this area as well, often organized informally among immigrant workers. In fact, many are suburb to suburb systems.

Many of these systems have to be informal because of outdated taxi and bus regulations (just like the fights over Uber). If anything, government should be encouraging more of this sort of thing (but then you take on the taxi lobby, and the bus drivers unions, etc).

by dcdriver on Aug 20, 2013 11:20 am • linkreport

So true, DCdriver. The van service caught the hackles of the transit union.

by SJE on Aug 20, 2013 12:08 pm • linkreport

The city government could do much more to foster employment for people just starting their employment histories.

To wit:

1. Follow up with developers whose PUD approvals include a commitment to employ DC residents. These commitments appear to be toothless as legal documents, and it does not look as though anyone is following up by seeing who is working on site or whether subcontractors seem to think they are bound by theses agreements.

2. The program to weatherize the homes of low income residents works from grants made by the Department of Environment to nonprofits. At least in my neighborhood a couple years ago, the actual work was being done by middle- age white guys driving trucks with Maryland plates.

3. It would be good if the corrections, employment training, and employment services functions of DC government could cooperate to somehow certify that certain young people who have been convicted of minor crimes and want a clean start seem to have been made "job ready" in terms of soft skills and job-specific skills. If such a program would entail having job sites visited by city officials to ensure that things are going well for both employers and employees, I would consider that a good use of my taxes.

If this is what an ordinary citizen notices, imagine with someone who is conversant with the myriad -- and likely uncoordinated -- functions of DC government could come up with.

by fearing dystopia on Aug 20, 2013 12:28 pm • linkreport

Van services are interesting. I noticed when I previously lived in a medium/low transit city near NYC there were a lot of private van contractors (beyond established jitney routes) that I think worked with temp agencies to take shift workers (mostly immigrant) out to peripheral job sites. Although that doesnt mean that a limited local transit route couldn't provide a cheaper alternative for a lot of workers. My guess is that the temp agencies pay for the service and roll it up into their fee which if thats the case would require some more thought.

by BTA on Aug 20, 2013 3:11 pm • linkreport

An interesting article that leaves out a key player - employers. The entire federal budget for the Workforce Investment Act programs is under $3 billion. Employers spend more than $170 billion annually on talent development and skill building. HOWEVER, the lion's share goes to employees who already have the highest educational attainments and greatest incomes. Training is operated as a BENEFIT by the sad sacks in HR. It is not viewed properly as a potential strategic advantage and generator of unique competitive edge. There are thousands of businesses in our community who can do well and do good in investing in lower-wage workers and providing a ladder in for the un- and underemployed. Also, you cannot WFD or higher ed successfully, WITHOUT first engaging employers. Dual customers must be the mantra -- just sayin'.

by Tom M on Aug 20, 2013 4:09 pm • linkreport

BTW -- WIA in DC is a joke and a cesspool of corruption and cronyism. Look into it. No outcomes. High costs. Questionable management and decisionmaking.

by Tom M on Aug 20, 2013 4:10 pm • linkreport

If you live in public housing or section 8 you almost certainly have a free off-street parking spot provided.

by Tom Coumaris on Aug 20, 2013 4:12 pm • linkreport

@Tom Coumaris ~ Can you elucidate further on your comment about Public Housing & Section 8? Maybe it's better if you don't ....

by Sally Stevens on Aug 20, 2013 6:38 pm • linkreport

In my experience most employers take advantage of WD funds for free or subsidized labor through which they offer little useful, or no training of any value to WDC participants. Which is the big problem with making it WD employer
centric ... there need to be a much better balance between employers and potential employees than there is at present. WTA is also a joke in NOLA.

by Sally Stevens on Aug 20, 2013 6:45 pm • linkreport


something else to consider in New York City is that transit runs 24hours a day and nowhere else in the country really does that.

If metro rail ran 24 hours even if only once per hour you would open many options for work up to blue collar jobs outside of dc, cause even if someone works in Maryland or Virginia there is no guarantee that they work within walking distance to a metro station.

by kk on Aug 21, 2013 12:04 am • linkreport

It's very funny to hear such a blanket cure for poverty in D.C. I am a native have survived here for many years.
U.D.C. even as a young woman no one would answer the phone when you called. Workforce Development at P.R. Harris staff is more unprofessional than that. I took a class for 4 months and because of the unprofessional handling of registration, which the process was never clear to me. I showed up ready to take my Certification and was told I was not registered, and could not do so. My classmates scheduled for a 9:30 a.m. Certification showed up and waited untill
11:30 to take the Certification test, hearing this made me call to see if I was registered. Called no answer. Was at the site a day before inquiring about registration, and was told "Ms. Mays will give you a call, but you should be o.k.
Spoke to Ms.Mays is person ,she patronized me and basically said in her own words " TOO BAD FOR YOU."

by Batrina Wallace on Aug 28, 2015 7:40 am • linkreport

Add a Comment

Name: (will be displayed on the comments page)

Email: (must be your real address, but will be kept private)

URL: (optional, will be displayed)

You can use some HTML, like <blockquote>quoting another comment</blockquote>, <i>italics</i>, and <a href="http://url_here">hyperlinks</a>. More here.

Your comment:

By submitting a comment, you agree to abide by our comment policy.
Notify me of followup comments via email. (You can also subscribe without commenting.)
Save my name and email address on this computer so I don't have to enter it next time, and so I don't have to answer the anti-spam map challenge question in the future.


Support Us