December 19, 1997

Toward a New Generation of Community Jobs Programs
by Clifford Johnson


A great irony and dilemma underpin American social policy in the 1990s. We extol the virtues of work and simultaneously reject attempts to create jobs through public means when work is not otherwise available.

Work now is a central focus of our nation's income security programs. This overarching concern for work emerges most vividly in the new welfare law, with its unprecedented work requirements and time limits on welfare receipt. Barring radical changes in the political landscape, the recent welfare debate makes it difficult to imagine sustained support for any new government initiative to help able-bodied, low-income Americans that is not deeply rooted in work.

At the same time, the notion of public job creation — using public funds to create wage-paying jobs in the private nonprofit and public sectors for those who cannot otherwise find work — is typically dismissed by critics as a "failed policy of the past." Depression-era programs such as the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps evoke positive reactions among some older Americans but more often seem irrelevant to today's challenges. CETA's legacy of public service employment in the 1970s is judged more harshly, reflecting media portrayals of widespread fraud and abuse in the program. The image of public job creation has grown so tarnished that recent debates about welfare and work have gone on without any serious discussion of new strategies for expanding work opportunities.

Low unemployment rates across most of the nation may make 1997 appear to be an odd time to re-examine the past record and future prospects of public job creation. Yet at least three reasons compel us to revisit these issues.

First, the conventional wisdom on public job creation is mistaken, or at least is unsupported by an unbiased examination of our past experience. Numerous demonstration projects over the past three decades have shown that publicly created jobs can yield important gains for participants, including welfare recipients and disadvantaged youth. Even evaluations of the much-maligned Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) found that its public service employment component produced useful work and boosted the post-program earnings of participants.

Second, large numbers of welfare families will suffer under the new welfare law without effective strategies for public job creation. Even with the national unemploy-ment rate at its lowest level in many years, some regions and many communities continue to face a shortage of jobs for low-skilled individuals. When the next economic downturn occurs, the problems posed by job shortages will become far more serious and widespread. New approaches to public job creation will be essential to generate adequate numbers of work opportunities and to provide the foundation for more enlightened welfare reforms in the future.

Third, chronic joblessness lies at the heart of America's poverty problem, particularly in depressed inner-city and rural areas. A total of 6.5 million individuals were counted as officially unemployed in May 1997. Detailed surveys in communities with high rates of poverty have found far more job seekers than job vacancies for persons with limited skills. Efforts to expand job opportunities in such communities are essential to reduce poverty. They also are a likely to be a precondition for future success in building stronger families, revitalizing low-income neighborhoods, and promoting broader social stability.



Renewed interest in public job creation does not imply a return to the same models or approaches used in decades past. To the contrary, today's challenge is to build upon the lessons of past job creation efforts — the successes as well as the failures — in forging a new generation of what I term "community jobs programs." How would these new initiatives be different from past ones? Here are nine suggestions for where we should focus our energies and try to break new ground:

1. Focus on chronic joblessness, not recessions. Every federal job creation program in the past three decades began in response to an economic downturn and justified as a "countercyclical" measure — one designed to stimulate the economy and put the unemployed quickly back to work. This approach has not succeeded. Because of the time required to pass and implement such programs, job creation funds typically arrive in states and communities only after the worst of the recession is over and an economic recovery has taken hold. What is more important, perhaps, is that pressures to set up such programs quickly make it almost impossible to pay adequate attention to program development and quality, leaving them vulnerable to criticism and attack.

A new generation of community jobs programs must begin by seeking to alleviate those job shortages that persist even during periods of strong economic growth. Such an initiative would focus explicitly on chronic joblessness among low-skilled individuals in depressed neighborhoods and communities. The New Hope Project is doing this now for inner-city residents in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The state of Vermont is taking a similar approach to create jobs for welfare recipients who reach a state-imposed time limit (see box below).

Failed Policy of the Past?

Few states or communities currently operate community jobs programs if they lack federal leadership and funding. Many of today's programs, including youth corps and YouthBuild programs across the country, focus exclusively on youth and combine paid work with education, training and service activities. Among programs serving adults, two current initiatives — the state of Vermont's Community Service Employment Program and Milwaukee's New Hope Project — are particularly noteworthy.

Vermont's Community Service Employment Program

Since late 1995, the state of Vermont has operated a community service employment (CSE) program for parents who reach state-imposed time limits on welfare receipt but are unable to find jobs. CSE workers are placed in jobs at public or private nonprofit agencies for up to 10 months, after which a two-month period of job search is required before any reassignment can be made. CSE jobs pay the minimum wage, and each participant works a number of hours that yields earnings equal to the family's prior welfare benefit. Along with wages earned, the state pays a stipend of $90 per month to reimburse workers for transportation costs, and FICA taxes deducted from their paychecks. The state anticipates providing CSE jobs for nearly 600 parents this fiscal year, although through the spring of 1997 fewer than 100 parents (mostly from two-parent families on welfare) had been placed in such positions.

Milwaukee's New Hope Project

The New Hope Project is a foundation-funded demonstration project in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, that began enrolling participants from high-poverty areas of the city in August 1994. It is a comprehensive model designed to ensure that adults who are willing and able to work can earn enough to lift their families out of poverty. The New Hope Project fulfills this guarantee through a combination of wage supplements, child care, and health insurance for participants who find employment for at least 30 hours per week. In addition, New Hope creates Community Service Jobs (CSJs) for those who cannot otherwise find jobs. CSJ workers typically are placed in nonprofit agencies that are able to provide substantial supervision and are willing to work collaboratively with New Hope staff. Each participant is eligible for only two CSJ assignments, each lasting a maximum of 26 weeks; up to 10 hours per week can be used for education or training activities. An average of 50-60 New Hope participants worked in CSJs during a typical week in 1996; more than 175 have worked in CSJs at some point since the program's inception.

2. Tie work projects more explicitly to community needs. The large majority of Americans support the idea of providing work for those who cannot find jobs on their own. That support quickly evaporates, however, when the public becomes convinced that public jobs are not "real" — that they do not focus on necessary or important tasks and therefore squander tax dollars. For political viability as well as programmatic effectiveness, work projects undertaken in a community jobs program must be closely and explicitly tied to pressing community needs.

No single set of work projects will make sense for every community that faces a job shortage. However, a competitive grant process that invites proposals from private nonprofit as well as public agencies can expand the range of options and ensure consideration of community needs. Past job creation initiatives relied heavily upon local government agencies to provide worksites or sponsor work projects, with limited community outreach or involvement of community-based organizations. A more open process that relies upon objective selection criteria and public hearings will encourage innovation and build a stronger base of community support. The San Francisco Conservation Corps is one of many local youth corps programs that uses such an approach. It seeks proposals from many different segments of the community and assesses their potential benefits for both the young people who will perform the work and the broader public.

3. Screen out those who can find other work. One way to ensure that participants in a community jobs program cannot find employment in the regular job market is to require that all applicants first participate in structured job search activities for 4-6 weeks. Research evidence suggests that it is very difficult to predict (based on demographic characteristics, educational attainment, or prior work experience) which individuals might succeed in finding unsubsidized jobs with only limited help. A period of job search before participation in a community jobs program offers a cost-effective way to "test the market" and to reassure the public that community jobs participants truly need assistance.

The addition of a "front-end" job search component will increase the admini-strative complexity of a community jobs program. To prevent these activities from becoming too burdensome, links to job search programs already operating in the community make a great deal of sense. Local Employment Service and welfare offices, regional Private Industry Councils, and nonprofit agencies that receive funding through the federal Job Training Partnership Act or state welfare-to-work initiatives all may offer job search and job placement services. These agencies could be valuable partners in developing the job search component of a community jobs program.

4. Seek to improve participants' skills. In their attempts to stimulate a faltering economy, prior federal job creation programs paid little attention to skills development. One opportunity in a new generation of community jobs programs is to engage low-skilled workers in education or job training activities that will boost their long-term employability. The early months of participation in a community jobs program provide a particularly valuable chance to assess each individual's basic academic and vocational skills and to identify those who would benefit from further education or training. Such skills development can be advanced by incorporating education and training activities directly in the community jobs program or through partnerships with education or job training providers in the community.

A growing body of research suggests that education and training are most effective when closely linked to work. Through work experience, individuals often become more aware of the barriers to advancement presented by their limited education or job skills. Their motivation to improve their skills also can rise when education and training are closely integrated with work activities, in contrast to more traditional classroom approaches. More than 100 YouthBuild programs in 34 states are based on these principles. They engage young people in the construction or rehabili-tation of affordable housing in low-income communities while also enabling them to acquire much-needed basic academic and vocational skills.

5. Move participants into unsubsidized jobs quickly. A community jobs program should be structured to help individuals make transitions into unsubsidized employ-ment as soon as possible. Poor labor market conditions may prevent some participants from moving into unsubsidized jobs. In many other cases, however, the additional work experience and academic or vocational skills acquired through community jobs — perhaps combined with transportation or other support services — will open the doors to permanent employment in the private or public sectors.

Time limits on community jobs (for example, of six to 12 months) offer one direct way to underscore the transitional nature and goals of the program, while also ensuring access to such jobs for a broader range of needy individuals. Several other program components also can strengthen the transitional focus of a community jobs program, including intensive job placement activities, periodic job search requirements, counseling, and peer support. In the late 1980's, a St. Paul program called Transitions succeeded in moving half of its highly disadvantaged caseload into unsubsidized jobs through a program design that combined these various elements.

6. Take steps to avoid displacing current workers. Displacement is a major threat to community jobs programs. Effective protections against displacement are necessary both to sustain political support for job creation efforts and to maximize their impact. Support for community jobs may evaporate quickly if they are seen as leading to job losses among permanent workers in public or private nonprofit agencies. In addition, the achievements of a community jobs program — both in increasing the overall supply of jobs and in boosting the job prospects of low-skilled individuals — can be seriously undermined by displacement of workers who may be no more skilled or securely attached to the labor market than those in the program.

Two strategies for minimizing displacement deserve particular attention. First, community review boards or planning committees can be charged with the task of identifying potential displacement problems raised by proposed work projects. Local youth corps find this approach quite effective, particularly when representatives of organized labor join the planning or review process. A second strategy places greater emphasis on developing new types of work for community jobs participants through time-limited projects administered by nonprofit agencies. The CETA experience of the 1970s suggests that relatively short-term work projects run by community-based organizations are significantly less likely than open-ended placements in public agencies to displace regular workers.

7. Use community jobs to leverage and support broader community-building efforts. Publicly funded jobs are rarely viewed as a catalyst for neighborhood self-help or larger community improvement efforts. Yet the opportunities to stimulate or support such efforts seem particularly noteworthy in two areas: providing incentives for volunteer or self-help activities, and linking community jobs programs explicitly to local community-building or economic development strategies.

One direct way to encourage self-help activities is to develop projects in which community jobs participants coordinate the activities of a larger complement of unpaid volunteers. Project sponsors could be encouraged or even required to reach out to local churches, neighborhood associations, or other community groups and serve as a catalyst for volunteer activities. Such combinations of paid work and self-help activities could produce tensions if the respective work roles of community jobs participants and unpaid volunteers are poorly defined. Nonetheless, the payoffs from such leveraging efforts can be substantial.

Links to local community-building or economic development efforts also have the potential to magnify the long-term impact of a community jobs program. For example, the efforts of empowerment zones, enterprise communities, community development corporations (CDCs), or local community-building initiatives could receive a major boost when community jobs programs undertake work projects that improve the quality of life or the "business climate" in low-income neighborhoods and impoverished rural areas. In this way, community jobs programs can create more than jobs — they also can help chart a course for future growth and economic development in depressed areas.

8. Build public-private partnerships. Past job creation initiatives have relied heavily upon city or county agencies to create worksites for participants, with only modest roles for private nonprofit agencies and little involvement by business, civic, and religious leaders. In the process, these initiatives have missed important opportunities to improve program quality and build a stronger base of public support.

Community jobs programs should forge strong partnerships with private nonprofit agencies for many reasons. Community-based organizations frequently are able to identify pressing needs in the neighborhoods or areas in which they work. Many nonprofit agencies also have the capacity to develop creative, highly visible projects that address these needs while tailoring individual job assignments to participants' skill levels, interests, and needs. Finally, nonprofit groups often serve as crucial links to diverse segments of the community, raising awareness and fostering communication in ways that engender broader community support for job creation initiatives.

Business, civic, and religious leaders also can play important roles in a community jobs program. Their involvement in project planning and selection committees can lend much-needed credibility and support to decisions regarding the nature of work that program participants perform. In addition, employer feedback can strengthen the skills development and job placement components of the program, and local churches and civic groups can aid community outreach efforts. Attempts to cultivate relationships with leaders from these diverse segments of the community are time-consuming, but if successful they can boost prospects for long-term success.

9. Start with quality, work toward scale. At the outset, most community jobs programs will have difficulty creating enough jobs to have a major impact on the communities they serve. The substantial costs of community jobs (as much as $13,000 to $15,000 for a full-time, year-round slot) often are a major barrier to expansion. A complex program design also can force programs to start small and build incrementally over time.

These limitations may prove frustrating, but starting small has a number of advantages. Program quality should receive greater attention. Initial problems can be addressed before increasing the numbers of participants and establishing new sites in additional neighborhoods or communities. In this way, small-scale programs can provide an extremely useful way of testing new models for creating community jobs and building public support for future expansion.


If thoughtfully developed and carefully administered, a new generation of community jobs programs will advance many important goals. Jobless Americans will gain the dignity and economic security that naturally accompanies paid work. Participants will acquire new skills, helping them make the transition into unsubsidized employment. Valuable community improvement projects will address pressing community needs. Low-income communities will benefit from an infusion of earned income and a resulting boost in buying power. Finally, society as a whole will profit from a strengthened ethic of responsible citizenship rooted in work and economic self-sufficiency.

Getting there will not be easy. If we believe in work as much as our rhetoric would suggest, however, we have no alternative but to find effective ways of creating employment opportunities for the jobless when work is not otherwise available.


Clifford M. Johnson is a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 820 First Street, N.E., Suite 510, Washington, DC 20002 (202-408-1080). This article appears in the 1997 Entrepreneurial Economy Review published by the Corporation for Enterprise Development, 777 North Capitol Street, N.E., Suite 410, Washington, DC 20002 (202-408-9788).