2019 Work First Research Symposium Concludes

On June 13, 2019, the 2019 Work First Research Symposium took place at the Crosby Street Hotel in SoHo, New York. There, the 2018-2019 cohort of Work First Fellows presented their research findings to an audience of government leaders, policy experts, and staff members from the Work First Foundation and America Works. The research projects that the Fellows chose to pursue were informed and inspired by their experiences serving low-income individuals and public welfare recipients at their respective sites. When it came to deciding their research topics, the Fellows were encouraged to be innovative and creative, while ensuring that the topic aligned with both their interests and the overarching goal of connecting underserved and marginalized individuals with gainful employment and human dignity.

While the 2019 Work First Research Symposium marked the culmination of the Fellows’ research component of their fellowship, it did not mark the end—many of the Fellows hope to continue the work they started and pursue new solutions to alleviating urban poverty across the nation. Nonetheless, as their fellowship and year of service came to an end, the 2018-2019 Work First Fellows expressed their gratitude for the opportunities, mentors, and lessons they gained through the Work First Foundation, and excitement for where their research can go in the future.

The 2019 Work First Foundation Research Presentations: Innovations in Workforce Development

Read the 2019 Research Journal in full here.

Without Limits: Examining the Asset Limit in New York City
Sarah Angell, New York, NY Fellow

The system of public assistance in the United States is often billed as a temporary aid for people in between periods of financial stability. This work explores the barriers to saving money among New Yorkers currently receiving public assistance to see whether they can in fact build up savings over time to work towards financial stability. This study looks at the asset limit in New York and investigates awareness of the asset limit among recipients of public assistance. The data included in this study comes from a survey completed by public assistance recipients participating in a job training program in Manhattan. I completed this research to answer three research questions: Do individuals receiving public assistance save money and have access to emergency savings in case of an unplanned expense? Does fear of having benefits cut off due to the asset test deter recipients of public assistance from saving money? How does gender influence savings and access to emergency funds? I predicted that not many respondents would know the asset limit, and that this lack of knowledge would serve as a barrier to saving money. I predicted that as someone’s guess of the amount of money they were allowed to save increased, the amount of money they saved would increase. I also predicted that women would have less access to savings than men. Survey results confirm those predictions in part and serve as the basis for the policy changes I recommend for New York State, New York City and employment service vendors.

Drug Related Criminal Background and its Effect on Employment
Anne Mahoney, Milwaukee, WI Fellow

There has been much research done on the positive correlation between drug rehabilitation and employment. Previous research was conducted with The Work First Foundation regarding the partnership between America Works and the Brattleboro Retreat in Vermont. These organizations’ objective is to provide vocational services for individuals in recovery. However, many times these vocational services would stand irrelevant once an employer runs a background check to find several minor drug charges. Employers can potentially reject an application upon discovery of criminal history with substance abuse. This research aimed to answer the following questions: 1. Are employers apprehensive about hiring people with previous drug charges and currently receiving drug rehabilitation treatment? 2. Are employers more likely to hire applicants if they are honest about their history with substance abuse and present drug treatment during the interviewing process? I hypothesize that employers are likely to be apprehensive about hiring people in drug rehabilitation treatment. I also hypothesize employers will be more likely to work with applicants if they are upfront about their past drug related convictions and current drug treatment in the interview process.

Trouble in Transit: The Impact of Public Transportation Accessibility on Employment Opportunity for Public Assistance Recipients in New York City
Ben Harker, New York, NY Fellow

Low-income residents in New York City depend on public transportation for their daily commutes more than any other socioeconomic group, but in several areas of the city, efficient public bus and train options are incredibly difficult to reach. The purpose of this research is to understand the transportation-related factors that have the greatest impact on the work experiences of NYC residents living on public assistance, and to propose solutions to address these factors. I hypothesize that limited access to quality public transportation both deters individuals from applying to jobs that they may otherwise consider and makes it difficult for them to retain their jobs. Survey data determines that long and stressful commutes have a significant impact on the employment experiences and job-search processes of public assistance recipients in Far Rockaway, the Bronx, and Staten Island, and that participants believe increasing transportation benefits to allow for improved access would afford them a greater variety of opportunities for employment. Finally, it recommends that America Works of New York consider a pilot project that would afford eligible clients temporary access to express bus passes as a means for encouraging greater job success, and that the MTA expand on successful existing bus network reforms as well as establish new routes to accommodate residents of highly decentralized locations.

A Route to Change: Barriers to Transportation and Employment in Memphis TANF Recipients
Courtney Thomas, Memphis, TN Fellow

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) recipients in Memphis participated in a survey designed to examine how transportation barriers affect a person’s ability to find and retain employment. Data from this survey suggests that major transportation challenges that affect clients include lack of auto insurance, invalid or no driver’s license, and lack of a reliable vehicle; however, there was no statistical evidence that these barriers correlate directly with one’s ability to find or retain employment. There was a significant relationship between having a driver license and the willingness to take advantage of employment opportunities. The survey also found that clients who had access to a vehicle were less likely to arrive late to their jobs or job activity.

Effects of Undiagnosed Learning Disabilities on Academic and Employment Outcomes
Ilana Fitzpatrick, New York, NY Fellow

This study examines the potential relationship between undiagnosed Learning Disabilities (LDs), academic achievement, and unemployment experiences. Data collected for this study comes from surveys completed by public assistance recipients at America Works in New York City. Individuals with LDs face additional barriers to academic success, limiting employment opportunities and economic mobility. This research hypothesized that the likelihood that an individual has an LD would be negatively correlated with academic achievements and positively correlated with the amount of time an individual was unemployed over the past five years. While the data suggests the first of these hypotheses to be true, it showed little correlation between the likelihood of an LD and time unemployed. The results indicate that while unemployment experiences may not be significantly different between individuals with an undiagnosed LD and the general population, there may exist meaningful differences in employment experiences.

Rapid Placement vs. Job Training: Comparing Veterans Employment Programs
Matt Propper, Washington D.C. Fellow

The US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) offers Compensated Work Therapy (CWT)—a 3-6-month program that enables veterans, including veterans with physical or mental disabilities or a history of addiction, to secure employment after the duration of the program. Two groups of veterans—those enrolled in only the America Works’ (AW) Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program (HVRP) and those enrolled in both Compensated Work Therapy (CWT) and HVRP, participated in a survey designed to explore the differences in the job-search strategy, employment outcomes, and post-employment behavior of both groups of veterans. Data from this survey suggests that veterans engaged in both CWT and HVRP (referred to as CWT veterans moving forward) applied to more positions and stayed in their most recent position for a shorter period than veterans exclusively engaged with HVRP (referred to as non-CWT veterans moving forward). On the other hand, more non-CWT veterans found jobs quicker, had higher wages, and applied for new jobs once they began their most recent position.

Automation and Artificial Intelligence: Sounding the Alarm to Better Assist Job Seekers at America Works
Patrick Smith, New York, NY Fellow

Automation and other technological advancements are catalyzing change in the ways people approach both work and their day-to-day lives. Improved processes and productivity have been cited as common benefits to embracing automation and amplified technological tools. In turn, automation enhanced by artificial intelligence, robotics, and other advancements have also stimulated feelings of concern and anxiety over potential threats of automation dominating and displacing much of the present labor. An unsettled, restructuring labor market has prompted questions on what to do next as certain jobs and careers are increasingly being squeezed out by these technological changes. Given such trends, finding employment is not only difficult in itself but helping individuals find employment faces increasing difficulties, posing challenges to America Works clients and staff. These challenges, among others, in helping recipients of public assistance find meaningful employment should be carefully evaluated. This report will begin to evaluate how both America Works clients and its employees view and approach a changing job market affected by automation and its opportunities on both job reference and placement, be it explicit or not.

Dispossession of Belongings: The Right to Identification and the Criminalization of Poverty
Anjali Menon, Baltimore, MD Fellow

This study investigates the barriers faced by formerly incarcerated citizens in Baltimore City, outlines the mechanisms by which these barriers are perpetuated, and proposes preliminary policies and practices that can work towards eliminating these barriers and facilitating reentry processes for those involved in the criminal justice system. The guiding questions for this research were as follows: What are the difficulties/barriers individuals face when trying to re-obtain their belongings and forms of identification post-arrest and/or post-release? How are these barriers perpetuated? What are the financial and social repercussions of this issue, both on an individual level as well as from the perspective of government/economic stakeholders? What institutional, organizational, and systemic policies and practices could be put into place to more smoothly and equitably facilitate this process? The general hypothesis is that the criminal justice system and its various ancillary institutions/structures do not have enough checks and balances to ensure that individuals are fairly treated post-arrest and post-release, which has significant impacts on employment outcomes upon release/reentry. Individuals are put through a number of bureaucratic hoops in obtaining their IDs. Not enough information is provided, particularly for those who do not have enough money to afford representation or other legal/social services, which then makes it exponentially more difficult to obtain employment and keeps individuals stuck in a cycle of perpetual intergenerational poverty and recidivism.

Post-Secondary Education for Working Adults
Ramsey Daniels, New York, NY Fellow

More employers than ever are requiring applicants to have a post-secondary education, and college enrollment rates have soared among non-traditional students (Clark and Wecker, 2017). However, most undergraduate programs are built around the assumption that their students can attend full-time, free from work or family obligations. This model neglects the experience of public assistance recipients, adults who want to attend school but are also accountable for work and family obligations. This work examines the challenges facing adults receiving public assistance in New York City who aspire to complete an undergraduate degree. It also attempts to identify ways in which low-wage employers can effectively support employees with educational aspirations. Specifically, it attempts to identify the potential benefits that a large-scale low-wage employer might reap from supporting employees with educational aspirations. The data used in this study is drawn from a survey completed by public assistance recipients enrolled in the America Works job training program in downtown Brooklyn, as well as a separate survey completed by employers who hire clients from America Works.

Falling Behind: Impacts of Digital Literacy on Employment
Tabitha Krondorfer, Washington D.C. Fellow

In the current job market, most employers require that candidates submit online applications. By surveying public assistance recipients enrolled in job training programs in Washington, DC and Maryland, I explore the extent that America Works clients understand how to use technology in their job search, both on their smartphones and computers. Public assistance recipients participating in job training programs in Washington, DC and Maryland participated in a survey designed to explore their ability to use a computer and smartphone. Data from this survey suggests that clients have a basic ability with a computer, more clients are able to use a smartphone than a computer, and approximately half of AW clients are interested in learning more digital skills for job searching.

Employment Patterns Among Single Mothers on Public Assistance: A Study of Employment Barriers, Welfare Reliance, and Personal Control
Sharon Lam, New York, NY Fellow

Single mothers who are both recipients of public assistance and clients of a jobs training program in Queens, Manhattan, and Brooklyn participated in a survey designed to investigate perceived self-efficacy before receiving vocational and educational resources and obstacles to employment. Data from the survey suggests that respondents demonstrate a high degree of welfare reliance (90.7 percent of single mothers have a self-sufficiency score between 0.81-1.00), are employed in lower-paying occupations (79.7 percent earn $15 or less per hour), and do not have a high sense of personal control (the mean and median of their Pearlin Mastery Score was around 15). The study concludes that single mothers are likely to find vocation after their children are past early developmental stage. In regard to employment, single mothers seem to be more concerned about compatibility of work schedule with childcare hours and job proximity to childcare rather than costs of childcare and transportation. The study’s findings can help provide targeted assistance to an understudied, severely disadvantaged, but growing population in the work force: single mothers receiving public assistance.

High School Degree Requirements: Working Against Employers and Job Candidates
David Hamburger, New York, NY Fellow

This study investigates the reasons behind employers’ high school degree requirements and how they perceive the competency of candidates who have and do not have a high school degree (either a diploma obtained from graduating 12th grade or one received from passing a high school equivalency exam). While all jobs must have requirements in order to weed out unfit candidates to provide hiring managers with an appropriate pool to pick from, it is problematic if the requirements of a job description eliminate candidates with the necessary skillset the hiring manager is seeking. Studies have shown this occurs when businesses add new post-secondary degree requirements, a process known as “upcredentialing.” Candidates without a post-secondary degree but who meet or exceed the required levels of past work experience (which time and time again hiring mangers state is the most valuable trait for a potential hire) are not having their applications reviewed. The severity of this problem cannot be overstated. It makes it harder for employers to fill their openings, and qualified candidates are unable to find jobs they are fit for, leaving them underemployed, creating economic inefficiency. To date, this important issue has not been studied with respect to high school degree requirements. By surveying hiring managers across a variety of industries and interviewing individuals affected by these requirements, we are able to begin to paint a better picture of the issues at play.