Can We Put Poor Men to Work?
About This Event

A major cause of poverty in America is that many poor adults do not work. The reform of welfare programs in the mid-1990s had some success, but its main purpose was to increase employment among welfare mothers. It therefore did little for low-income men. These men are seldom on welfare Listen to Audio

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themselves and thus are largely beyond the reach of welfare work programs. Yet they are often the fathers of welfare families, and their work problems are central to the poverty problem.

How can the nation achieve "welfare reform for men"? That is, how can we combine new benefits with clearer work requirements so that low-income men will work more regularly and thus escape poverty? Two groups of low-skilled men are especially important: those who fail to pay their child support judgments due to work problems and ex-offenders who have left prison and risk becoming recidivists unless they find work. Some experimental fatherhood and prison reentry programs have shown promise. Yet all have been small and largely detached from the mainstream child support and criminal justice institutions that deal with poor men.

Panelists will describe leading work programs and examine how such programs might be broadened to serve more men in need. How might they be integrated into routine child support and criminal justice operations? In short, how does one make employment a regular experience for these men so that they will more likely escape poverty and be better able to support their families?

The conference will also include a presentation of a new national study on child support and prison reentry programs. In addition, representatives from the Obama administration, congressional staff, and the advocacy community will discuss whether and how national policy might help expand these programs.

Event Summary

WASHINGTON, JUNE 19, 2009--Poverty is inextricably linked with low work levels. In 2007, among all adults who worked, only 6 percent were poor. For men aged sixteen to fifty, 50 percent of those who were poor did not work. Although welfare reform of the 1990s focused on increasing employment levels of mothers with children, little has been done for men who do not work. Who are these men and can we put them to work? At a conference at the American Enterprise Institute on May 27, 2009, visiting scholar Lawrence M. Mead discussed how we can create "welfare reform for men" by comprehensively reforming child support and prison reentry programs to require employment among low-income men.

Both cultural and economic reasons explain the men's work problem. In his introduction, Mead said that "the economic approach speaks in terms of certain large changes in the economy, globalization, rising inequality that reduce the relative wages of unskilled men," while the cultural approach "says that falling work levels primarily reflect a breakdown of work discipline." The right way forward, he explained, considers "economic structure, particularly in dealing with low wages, but to deal with lack of all employment we must be prepared to require work."

Since many poor men are child support defaulters or ex-offenders who have been incarcerated, Mead convened experts from the states that have pioneered successful employment programs in child support and corrections policy. State and local administrators shared their experiences creating programs to start a dialogue on how best to get these men into sustained employment. Mead urged that the central focus of child support and corrections agencies be turned toward employment--essentially creating a work requirement--since employment is a strong predictor of stability among men. 

"Getting these men to work is a crucial aspect of alleviating poverty," Mead noted. While "welfare reform was an effort to drive women away from the government, in the men's case, the movement has to go the other way. . . . Men have to come towards government, need to accept a relationship with the official system where they work in legitimate jobs, pay taxes, pay child support, and in turn, we help them out."

Mead also presented preliminary results from a survey of the states to identify existing men's work programs. The findings indicate that the landscape for employment programs aimed at low-income men--particularly men who are non-custodial parents or have been incarcerated--is tangled, with emerging, closing, and active programs. Many programs exist, but most are small and largely detached from the mainstream child support and criminal justice systems. They seldom have experimental evaluations and administrators are often left to create programs from scratch without collaboration. Federal action is needed to help scale up such programs to meet the broader needs of poor men.

Child Support

Child support enforcement has improved its ability to collect wages of non-custodial parents automatically, but there are still many nonpaying obligors. One cause is child support agencies' inability to encourage and require employment among men. In fact, child support can actually deter men from gaining legitimate employment because, as Mead explained, "getting a job can mean being found!"

Creating an employment program through child support is crucial to reducing poverty because working has systemic effects: More men working translates into increased collections for child support, which ultimately means fewer women on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Lisa Marks of Milwaukee County Child Support Enforcement noted, "child support is where the men are. TANF was where the women were, but child support is how you focus on the men."
According to the survey, ten out of thirty states have work programs of some kind associated with child support, and most of these programs are mandatory--that is, nonpaying men are referred to them by judges, and there are penalties for not participating.

But child support employment programs are not easy to create. Successful program generally show these features:

  • First, state agencies must perform their original missions well. Michael Hayes, who runs a particularly successful employment program in Texas called Non-Custodial Parents Choices (NCP) Choices stressed using agencies' strengths. In Texas, child support can identify defaulters, the courts can decide what to do with defaulters, and workforce agencies can deliver employment services to defaulters. NCP Choices harnesses these abilities: child support finds defaulters and sends them to court, where the judge provides three options: pay child support, go to jail, or participate in an employment program. If the father chooses the latter, workforce agencies have representatives in the courtroom who immediately work with the defaulter. The workforce agency then performs its specialty: finding employment and placing men in jobs. Partnering among agencies mutually enhances their abilities to perform their primary missions.
  • Second, participation must be mandatory and enforced by the courts. Judge Kristin Ruth of North Carolina, a pioneer of Child Support Courts, explained that a partnership between the courts and community-based organizations "facilitates the delivery of employment services" to the men in need and provides a cheaper alternative to putting them in jail. A work requirement essentially mandates the men to show up and receive help. Hayes explained that in Texas, they tried the "if you build it they will come" approach, and it did not work. Successful programs need a "help but hassle" approach that provides employment services with immediate sanctions for those who fail to comply.
  • Third, Marks explained the need for a "human side." She manages the largest child support caseload in the state of Wisconsin, yet has excellent collections rates--due mostly to rebranding child support to gain the trust of low-income men. Marks explained that "men knew where to go to get help," and she has built "trust over time" with an "open and approachable staff." Gaining the trust of low-income men is essential to any effort that will be successful in getting them back to work.

Prison Reentry

There is a strong correlation between unemployment and recidivism--89 percent of men who violate probation or parole are unemployed at the time of the violation. Recidivism has broad effects on poverty, as many ex-offenders--some studies showing numbers as high as 70 percent--are noncustodial parents who owe child support. Though it is common for corrections agencies to have an "elaborate parole system" that involves case management, "that system has not evaluated well [and] doesn't reduce recidivism," Mead explained. Reentry programs must "shift the focus from public safety to employment."

The statewide survey found employment programs in twenty of twenty-seven states completed. The programs are myriad in size, scope, structure, and funding sources. These findings, coupled with presentations from administrators of innovative reentry programs, suggest the necessary elements of a successful program:

  • First, job placement must happen quickly after men leave prison, and, to achieve this, work programs must be mandatory. Finding a job is priority number one for most ex-offenders. As Mindy Tarlow of the Center for Employment Opportunities explained, "when they come home from prison, you have to meet people where they are, and most people coming home from prison want to work." Most offenders violate probation or parole within months of their release. They are particularly vulnerable right after release--as Erin Jacobs of ComAlert noted, it is "key to engage parolees before they return to old practices." Job placement should be the primary focus, with services such as vocational training, child support modifications, and drug abuse programs included.
  • Second, programs must have political support from the highest level to gain legitimacy. Reducing recidivism is a bipartisan issue currently gaining traction in Congress with Senator Jim Webb's National Criminal Justice Commission Act. The state level is equally important. Jeff Padden, who helped design the Michigan Prison ReEntry Initiative, explained that a major component of their program was support from Governor Jennifer Granholm. This gave his program legitimacy but still allowed him to be innovative and flexible at the local level. Jacobs noted the importance of having the District Attorney's office on board for ComAlert, as "support from law enforcement adds legitimacy."
  • Third, programs must be broadened. While the Center for Employment Opportunities and ComAlert are both innovative programs, they serve only 2,000 and 350 offenders per year, respectively. Programs exist around the country, but they are generally very small and cannot meet the need of all ex-offenders returning to the workforce. Programs must be institutionalized within state departments of corrections and scaled up to meet larger populations of men.

Difficulties to Scaling

Vicki Turetsky of the Center for Law and Social Policy touched on the importance of scaling. "If we're going to go in the direction of providing services for men to get jobs and perhaps also to strengthen family relationships," she said, "you need to build statewide capacity." In both child support and prison reentry, there are serious barriers to building up programs to meet the larger needs of men. Most successful programs rely on intensive case management, which means each caseworker handles only a small number of men. In order to broaden mandatory employment programs, a massive increase in case managers is required, and their focus must be on employment.

Additionally, the jurisdictions of agencies involved (i.e. child support and work force agencies) often do not coincide. Hayes had to overcome these differences in developing NCP Choices. "It was hard because workforce and child support regions do not line up. Now, try to mix in judges--crazy." In Hayes' case, NCP Choices started with pilot programs that were covered by expanding the workforce board areas. Child support and the workforce agencies worked with the courts to further define their jurisdictions. NCP Choices also used technological collaboration--creating a joint computer database to foster close contact and streamline communication between agencies. Now, when the child support agency finds a defaulter, the courts and workforce agencies know immediately.

In the survey of state programs, one universal impediment to reform faced by state administrators was budget cuts. Most states simply do not have the money to tackle reform singlehandedly. Meaningful and comprehensive reform will require money from the federal level. Mead's initial estimates the cost at approximately $5 billion--"peanuts in these current times." There are also savings that offset costs--since, as Ruth shared, increased work "pours money back into the system," reducing dependency costs per men and increasing child support collections. In Texas, for every man involved in NCP Choices, there was on average a 17 percent decrease in TANF enrollment among the corresponding welfare mothers.

Funding sources for existing programs are myriad. Sources for child support programs currently include Office of Child Support Enforcement grants, 1115 grants, state child support budgets, TANF money, Department of Labor grants, and Workforce Investment Act money. For prison reentry, funding sources include but are not limited to state criminal justice, Justice Department grants, Labor Department Grants, Prison Reentry Initiative grants, and Serious and Violent Offenders Reentry Initiative grants. Each funding source has limitations on which population of men may be served.

Mead summarized implementation challenges based on visits to six states: Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Texas, and Wisconsin.  There is a clearer political support for work programs in child support than in criminal justice. Both child support and criminal justice systems are complicated, with many agencies involved in running work programs. In child support, judges play an especially important role. They can either an obstacle and a resource for these programs.

Policy Recommendations

Turestky said that there is "growing consensus that government ought to be in the business of worrying about men and women." But, Mead added, "no one has yet conceived of the idea that we can require all of these men to work." Any additional policy must enforce a work requirement. Mead offered several national policy recommendations:

Create work requirements for men who are already obligated to work: child support defaulters and ex-offenders on parole. The primary focus should be work. This will also require other services like vocational training and drug abuse treatment (a "help but hassle" model).

  • For child support employment programs, Social Security Title IV D funding should be allowed for work programs for defaulters, subject to participation requirements as in TANF.
  • In criminal justice, continue project grant funding but shift toward programs run by state agencies, not NGOs.
  • Create a larger wage subsidy--similar to the Center for Employment Opportunity's incentives--for low-paid men, provided they work full-time and pay child support judgments.
  • Conduct experimental evaluations of employment programs in child support and prison reentry to learn more about what is effective.

In both child support and criminal justice, work programs have a long way to go before they can meet the broader need of low-income men. There is a movement out there to expand these program, but Mead noted that it "needs greater ambition--to expect all nonworking men to work . . . These men are indispensible; we can't do without them." Increased employment among them would transform the inner city--decreasing recidivism, increasing child support collections and family interaction, and ultimately reducing poverty.




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Speaker biographies

Robert Gordon is associate director for education, income maintenance, and labor at the Office of Management and Budget. Prior to serving in the Obama administration, Mr. Gordon was a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, where he focused on education and domestic policy. While on leave from the center in 2006 and 2007, he served as a senior adviser to the chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, leading an overhaul of the city's multibillion dollar school budgeting system and developing new human capital initiatives. Prior to joining American Progress in 2005, he was domestic policy director for the Kerry-Edwards presidential campaign. He previously worked for Senator John Edwards (D-N.C.) as Judiciary Committee counsel, legislative director, and policy director on his first presidential campaign. Earlier in his career, Mr. Gordon was a law clerk for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and a Skadden Fellow at the Juvenile Rights Division of the Legal Aid Society in New York City, where he represented children in abuse and neglect proceedings. He also served in the Clinton White House as an aide to the National Economic Council and the Office of National Service, helping craft the legislation creating AmeriCorps.

Ron Haskins is a senior fellow in the economic studies program and codirector of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution. He is also a senior consultant at the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore. Mr. Haskins is the author of Work Over Welfare: The Inside Story of the 1996 Welfare Reform Law (Brookings, 2006), the coauthor of Getting Ahead or Losing Ground: Economic Mobility in America (Pew Charitable Trusts and Brookings, 2008), and a senior editor of the journal The Future of Children. In 2002, he was a senior adviser to the president on welfare policy. Prior to joining Brookings and Casey, Mr. Haskins spent fourteen years on the staff of the House Committee on Ways and Means Human Resources Subcommittee, first as welfare counsel to the Republican staff, then as the subcommittee's staff director. While serving on the subcommittee, he was editor of the 1996, 1998, and 2000 editions of the Green Book. From 1981 to 1985, he served as a senior researcher at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Michael Hayes is the deputy for family initiatives in the Child Support Division of the Texas Office of the Attorney General. He has extensive experience in the development of policy, partnerships, and projects that support family stability, paternity establishment, father involvement, and child support program improvement. He has led the implementation of numerous child support demonstration projects and helped establish statewide initiatives educating teens about parental responsibility, providing legal services to parents with visitation and custody issues, and directing unemployed noncustodial parents to workforce services. Previously, Mr. Hayes helped create and was director of the Texas Fragile Families Initiative, a statewide initiative bringing together more than thirty private foundations, multiple state agencies, and community/faith-based organizations in twelve sites across Texas to support fragile families.

Diedra Henry-Spires is the professional staff for human services and income policy for the chairman of the Senate Committee on Finance. Her portfolio includes TANF and related programs, child care, child welfare, HIV/AIDS, maternal and child health, unemployment insurance, and women's issues. Ms. Henry-Spires began her tenure at the Finance Committee in 2006 as a Brookings Institute Legis Fellow. Previously, she served for ten years at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In her last position there, she served as the principal public health adviser on violence against women for the Office on Women's Health and developed national policies in violence against women, HIV/AIDS, and young women's health. She also developed and administered contracts and grants to address policy objectives related to women's issues.

Erin Jacobs is a research analyst at the Manpower Demonstration and Research Corporation, where she works on the Transitional Jobs Reentry Demonstration, the hard-to-employ evaluation, and the evaluation of the Rikers Island Single Stop program. Previously, Ms. Jacobs and Bruce Western, a professor of sociology at Harvard University, conducted an evaluation of the ComALERT prisoner reentry program in Brooklyn, New York.

Robert Lerman is a professor of economics at American University and an institute fellow at the Urban Institute. He is also a research fellow at the Institute for the Study of Labor in Berlin, Germany. He has published research and policy analyses on employment, income support, and youth development, especially as they affect low-income populations. In the 1970s, he worked on reforming the nation’s income maintenance programs and on youth employment policies as staff economist for both the congressional Joint Economic Committee and the U.S. Department of Labor. He was one of the first scholars to examine the patterns and economic determinants of unwed fatherhood and to propose a youth apprenticeship strategy in the United States. Mr. Lerman served on the National Academy of Sciences panel examining the U.S. postsecondary education and training system for the workplace. He has testified before congressional committees on youth apprenticeship, child support policies, and the information technology labor market. His recent research deals with the impact of family structure on employment and earnings, with assets for low-income families, and with apprenticeship in the United States and other countries.

Lisa Jo Marks is the interim director for the Milwaukee County Department of Health and Human Services, Wisconsin's largest social service agency. The department administers programs and provides services to over 250,000 clients in the areas of income maintenance, behavioral health, disability services, and delinquency. Ms. Marks was previously the director for the Milwaukee County Department of Child Support, were she operated the state's largest child support agency, requiring case management of 144,000 cases, or 44 percent of the state of Wisconsin's child support caseload; approximately two hundred staff members; and a $21 million departmental budget. Ms. Marks is a member of the National Child Support Enforcement Association, the Wisconsin Child Support Enforcement Association, the Milwaukee Fatherhood Initiative Advisory Board, and the Milwaukee Fatherhood Collaborative.

Lawrence M. Mead is a professor of politics and public policy at New York University and a visiting scholar at AEI. He has been a visiting professor at Harvard University, Princeton University, and the University of Wisconsin. He has also been a visiting fellow at Princeton and at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Mr. Mead is an expert on the problems of poverty and welfare in the United States. Among academics, he was the principal exponent of work requirements in welfare, the approach that now dominates national policy. He is also a leading scholar of the politics and implementation of welfare reform. He is the author of seven books and over a hundred other publications. Government Matters (Princeton University Press, 2004), his study of welfare reform in Wisconsin, was a cowinner of the 2005 Louis Brownlow Book Award, given by the National Academy of Public Administration.

Jeffrey D. Padden is the founder and president of Public Policy Associates, a firm that works across the nation in public policy research, development, and evaluation. For the past six years, Mr. Padden has led the firm's work as a partner with the Michigan Department of Corrections and the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency in the leadership of the Michigan Prisoner ReEntry Initiative. Mr. Padden's experience of over thirty years in the public policy arena has included roles as deputy director of the Michigan Department of Commerce, director of the Governor's Human Investment Project, and five terms in the Michigan House of Representatives. As a legislator, he chaired the House Corrections Committee for eight years. Mr. Padden served as president of the Michigan Association for Evaluation from 1999 to 2003.

Kristin H. Ruth is a district court judge in Wake County, North Carolina. Judge Ruth is currently serving her third four-year term and concentrates most of her time in the enforcement of child support. She has been instrumental in implementing alternatives to incarceration and promotes employment resources, electronic house arrest, and mediation in the disposition of her cases. In 2000, Judge Ruth was awarded the North Carolina Child Support Council's Distinguished Service of Excellence Award. In 2003, she received the American Business Woman of the Year Award through the American Business Women's Association, and in 2004, she was awarded the Commissioner's Judge of the Year Award, presented to her by the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement. She currently serves on the board of Carolina Dispute Settlement Services and Carolina Correctional Services and is a member of the National Council for Juvenile and Family Court Judges and the Federal Judicial Child Support Task Force. She recently completed a three-year term on the Chief Justice's Commission for Professionalism. In 2008, Judge Ruth was awarded a three-year special improvement project grant from the Office of Child Support Enforcement to produce a best practice/policy manual and interactive website for her model problem-solving child support court.

Myles Schlank is a career employee with the Office of Child Support Enforcement in the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), where he supervises staff who manage the child support innovation grant programs, child access and visitation grant program, and healthy marriage initiative. Previously at ACF's Office of Family Assistance, he directed staff who field-monitored welfare employment and training programs and gave technical assistance to state welfare agencies on a range of practice issues. He also was on HHS's adjunct training group as a trainer on supervisory skills, presentation skills, and stress management. Early in his career, Mr. Schlank worked for the Essex County, New Jersey, Division of Welfare, where he managed a field office income maintenance staff. He also taught Sociology at Seton Hall University in New Jersey.

Mindy S. Tarlow is the executive director and chief executive officer of the Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO), a New York–based nonprofit corporation that provides employment services to men and women returning from prison and detention to New York City. CEO was created by the Vera Institute of Justice in the late 1970s and has been operating as an independent corporation since 1996. Ms. Tarlow began her association with CEO as a program director at the Vera Institute of Justice in 1994, where she managed the successful spinoff of CEO from Vera. Previously, she spent close to ten years at the New York City Office of Management and Budget, where she rose from senior analyst in 1984 to deputy director in 1992. Ms. Tarlow guided many criminal justice projects during her tenure in government, including coauthoring the Mayor's Safe Streets, Safe City Omnibus Criminal Justice Program.

Vicki Turetsky is director of family policy at the Center for Law and Social Policy, specializing in family issues including child support, low-income fathers, prisoner reentry, domestic violence, and marriage. She has extensive experience both as a state human services administrator and as an advocate for low-income families. She is a member of the National Fatherhood Leaders Group, the Council of State Governments Reentry Policy Council, and the John Jay College of Criminal Justice Prisoner Reentry Institute Advisory Committee. Previously, Ms. Turetsky served in the Minnesota Attorney General's Office and Department of Human Services; Union County Legal Services in New Jersey; the U.S. Corporation for National Services; and the Manpower Demonstration and Research Corporation, where she helped implement the Parents' Fair Share demonstration project for low-income fathers. She has received a number of awards for her work, including recognition by the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement, the National Child Support Enforcement Association, and the State of Minnesota.

Matt Weidinger is the Republican staff director for the Income Security and Family Support Subcommittee (formerly the Human Resources Subcommittee) on the House Committee on Ways and Means. Previously, Mr. Weidinger served as manager of government relations for the USX Corporation (representing U.S. Steel and Marathon Oil). From 1995 to 1999, he also served on the Ways and Means Committee staff. In 1999, he served as a professional staff member on the Social Security Subcommittee, where he specialized in Social Security reform proposals, among other measures. From 1995 through 1998, he served as a professional staff member on the Human Resources Subcommittee, where he assisted in drafting the 1996 Welfare Reform Law, including work, cash benefits, and disability policies. From 1990 through 1994, Mr. Weidinger served as a senior legislative assistant to Representative Clay Shaw (R-Fla.), for whom he focused on law enforcement, foreign affairs, health, and Social Security issues.

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