The Catch-22 of Concentrated Poverty

  • November 13, 2014
  • In June 2014, Secretary of Labor Tom Perez addressed the Annual Meeting of the National Fund for Workforce Solutions in Chicago. While his remarks were more generally targeted at addressing the nation’s then still high unemployment rate, much of what he presented is directly applicable to reducing concentrated poverty. We have known for quite some time that the route out of poverty is good employment. Unfortunately, it has been a good long while since we could feel respectable in this country about the quality and equity of our education and employment systems.

    “People living in poverty and especially those living in concentrated poverty effectively have no access to good jobs that pay fair wages and have very limited access to programs that help them acquire the skills to compete for those jobs. This is the Catch-22 of concentrated poverty.”

    Broken Basic Bargain

    We have begun to hear more and more about the broken ‘basic bargain’ that we as Americans have made to ourselves. These issues came to the forefront during the demonstrations of Occupy Wall Street and have been carried forward by many other individuals and groups since then. Regrettably, efforts to raise awareness of the huge disparities and inequity have been largely panned as “classism” or “class warfare” and summarily dismissed. It is truly unfortunate that we cannot admit that we as a country have not made good on our basic bargain of making sure that people have access to the opportunities that will allow them to punch their ticket to the middle class. The basic bargain has always been about providing access to good jobs that pay fair wages and helping people acquire the skills to compete for those jobs. While we can argue about whether the basic American bargain ever applied equally to all Americans, we cannot ignore the fact that more and more and in increasing numbers certain groups of Americans are left out of the basic bargain altogether and that these Americans overwhelmingly have one thing in common: poverty.

    “The only way out is to disrupt the system, break apart the Catch-22 and create access to viable education and training programs for in demand skills for good jobs for residents living in communities of concentrated poverty.”

    Lack of Access to Opportunities

    People living in poverty and especially those living in concentrated poverty effectively have no access to good jobs that pay fair wages and have very limited access to programs that help them acquire the skills to compete for those jobs. This is the Catch-22 of concentrated poverty. People with in demand skills will always have opportunity. Those without skills will be blocked out. No amount of government support of cash assistance can ever make up for a lack of skill. Yet acquiring those skills requires the access to good education and workforce training programs that people living in concentrated poverty lack. Furthermore, creating good jobs in communities of concentrated poverty is obstructed by the lack of a skilled workforce. Good jobs and access to opportunity for employment cannot be created because of the lack of a skilled workforce. The skilled workforce cannot be created because of a lack of access to education and training to develop the in demand skills. And so, the communities of concentrated poverty all over this country are caught in the same Catch-22, a self-perpetuation of a broken system.

    The initial opportunity for improvement rests in those who are not yet employed but will be in the near future and in those who are not employed currently, but could be. Initial efforts must focus on newly employing 27,000 more individuals in skilled jobs. For positive transformation to occur, residents of the West Side need more and better paying jobs.

    Initial efforts must focus on newly employing 27,000 more individuals in skilled jobs. For positive transformation to occur, West Side residents need more and better paying jobs.

    Disrupt The System

    The only way out is to disrupt the system, break apart the Catch-22 and create access to viable education and training programs for in demand skills for good jobs for residents living in communities of concentrated poverty. Instead of the vicious cycle of the Catch-22, we could create a virtuous cycle of access to opportunity and give poor people in our country the opportunity to compete on the same stage and for the same gains as everyone else. We could recognize that the more of our fellow citizens that successfully migrate to the middle class, the stronger our economy and the better off all of us are. We could decide that without a basic bargain for everyone, there is only a self-perpetuating system that leaves everyone poorer. We know how to break the Catch-22. All that is takes is focus, concentrated effort, and the willingness to devote resources in a productive manner. We are already devoting quite a lot of resources to keep the poor where they are in communities of other poor people and paying the price for the perpetuation of this system. Why not buy something better with our money?

    Learn more about a better bargain for Chicago’s West Side, at www.westsideforward.org.