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Building an Inclusive Post-Pandemic American Workforce

Unspent federal funds could be used to help people with disabilities back into the workplace

All eyes are on the declining number of unemployed. The May and June jobs reports chronicle the reabsorption of 5.3 million who lost their jobs in the COVID-19 pandemic. Twelve million jobs to go to reach pre-pandemic employment.

Yet prior to the pandemic, there were 18 million Americans missing from the economy. These persons were neither employed nor seeking employment—nor retirees, students or in-home caregivers—and therefore were excluded from the Bureau of Labor Statistics count of the workforce. In order that America emerge from the pandemic stronger than before, a concerted initiative by federal and state governments to move them back into the economy—using existing resources—must begin now. 

These are people struggling with disabilities such as physical handicaps and mental illness; substance abuse disorders; health complaints; criminal histories; and vocational deficits. They are, however, human beings endowed with unique and significant potential; they deserve our attention for several reasons.

Research on the social determinants of health finds that employment has a very strong correlation with positive health outcomes. To exist as a non-participant in the economy is thus an invitation to dire health outcomes including premature death. 

What’s more, these individuals are needed as contributors to our national commonweal, fueling increased economic and social progress. And people engaged in productive activities are much less likely to engage in negative and destructive behaviors.

Those struggling with such barriers to employment are highly unlikely to enter the workforce on their own.  They must be engaged through intentional and targeted interventions to build the hard skills, soft skills and confidence to gain and maintain employment. Thankfully, many superb non-profit organizations have modeled the way forward. 

PRIDE Industries is the country’s largest employer of people with disabilities and a tremendous example of how to integrate them into the economic mainstream.  Delancey Street models how to do this for people with criminal histories and related barriers. Saint John’s Program for Real Changeformerly led by co-author Steeb—demonstrates how to do this for single-mother-led families struggling with multiple barriers including homelessness.    

Common elements of their success are that they approach each client as a unique individual—there is no one-size-fits-all methodology applied; they work with individuals to clearly identify their impediments to work and provide tailored assistance based on those impediments; they provide hands-on, experiential learning versus a singular focus on classroom-based learning; and they provide intensive engagement with the individual until employment stability is achieved.

These individuals benefit particularly from a hands-on learning environment where they can learn hard and soft skills simultaneously, and where they are guided and rewarded on a continual basis to help them build confidence. Classroom-based education can be a part of their curriculum but is by no means driving it. 

Moving them into the economy is not only proven to be possible, the costs are immeasurably lower than the alternative of subsidizing their economic isolation. And, there is an ample amount of money already in the system to support these efforts…though it is currently being squandered. 

The Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program sends $17 billion to the states annually, only 39% of which is being spent on anything remotely related to promoting work—TANF’s core purpose. There is another $4 billion of unspent funds from prior years, waiting on the states to become intentional about moving people to work.  

The USDA’s food stamp program has a robustly funded, though underutilized, employment and training grant. States use the excuse of USDA’s partial match requirement as a reason to opt out. 

The advent of Medicaid Managed Care organizations (MCOs) offers another considerable opportunity. Medicaid managed care organizations originated to save states’ Medicaid funds by managing recipients’ service utilization. These entities are already in contact with most of these 18 million Americans and maintain a profile of their circumstances. While MCO’s are not yet expert at moving clients to employment—CareSource of Ohio is a stellar counterexample—they can be trained to do so… especially when provided a per capita incentive payment for each recipient they move to private insurance through employment.  

Martin Luther King, Jr. suggested we strive to achieve full employment so that everyone who has something to contribute can do so.  When people are not included in the economic mainstream, disrespect of oneself follows, as does idle time—the combination of which is ripe for negative behaviors such as drug use or violence. What’s more, we keep them from achieving their purpose and their deepest human desire—to be loved and to matter. 

This month is the 30th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Since its passage, we have unequivocally failed to move the needle on economic participation of disabled persons. Now is the time to commit to the engagement of all who reside outside the economy through a concerted Federal/State initiative.  In so doing, we strengthen the fabric of our society by including more in the American Dream and lay the foundation for the next stage of economic growth.  

Michele Steeb served 12 years as CEO of Saint John’s Program for Real Change, a Sacramento-based program that supports homeless women and children in changing their lives. She is the author of Answers Behind the Red Door, a battle plan for the homelessness explosion challenging our nation. Steven Wagner is the former Deputy Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council and former Acting Assistant Secretary of the Administration for Children and Families at the US Department of Health and Human Services in the President Trump Administration.