Jobs program doing well
By Steve Karnowski
ST. PAUL -- As a single mother, Olga Rocha struggled every day to support her two daughters and grandson on what she made as a receptionist in the public housing project where they lived.
She got a break when her complex, the Mount Airy Homes, was chosen to take part in Jobs-Plus, an experiment funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, private foundations and other agencies, that aimed to raise the incomes of people living in some of the country's poorest inner-city housing projects.
A key feature of the program, stabilized rents, helped Rocha hang on to more of her income as her wages rose in the years since the program was rolled out in 1998.
"I had some difficult times, but ... it helped me to overcome barriers that I had," Rocha said.
According to a study released last week, in the three housing projects where Jobs-Plus was most fully implemented -- St. Paul, Los Angeles and Dayton, Ohio -- the program raised participants' incomes in the past four years by 14 percent above what they otherwise would have earned. That worked out to an average total of $4,563 in additional income.
"This program was designed to make work pay," said Joanne MacDonald, the St. Paul Public Housing Agency's lead staffer on Jobs-Plus.
The study was conducted by MDRC, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization based in New York that evaluates social policy initiatives.
The research provides "the first credible evidence" of how an intensive employment initiative based in public housing projects can make a significant dent in poverty, said James A. Riccio, co-author of the study and research director for Jobs-Plus.
William Julius Wilson, an expert on urban poverty at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, called Jobs-Plus and the MDRC study "an impressive, ambitious and rigorous intervention on a hard-to-to-reach, very disadvantaged population.
"I think that these findings on income gains ... suggest that thoughtful, well-executed social programs can make a difference in the lives of these disadvantaged individuals," said Wilson, who sits on MDRC's board but was not involved in the study.
Jobs-Plus was rolled out in 1998, and concluded last year in St. Paul, Los Angeles and Dayton. It got off to a promising start in Seattle, the researchers said, but ended early when residents of the housing project there were displaced by urban renewal. Programs in Baltimore and Chattanooga, Tenn., dwindled early on due to various problems on the local level, Riccio said.
Jobs-Plus had three core components:
• Support; services, such as help with finding work, education and training, child care and transportation assistance;
Rule changes so that rents held stable, or rose slower than normal, so that participants' increasing incomes weren't eaten up by higher rents, which would have been a disincentive to work;
Community support, such as neighbor-to-neighbor exchanges of information on job opportunities and employment services.
The study found that Jobs-Plus worked particularly well in certain groups, boosting four-year total incomes by 28 percent ($12,994) among Latin American men in the participating Los Angeles housing project, 21 percent ($8,517) among Southeast Asian men at Mount Airy in St. Paul, and 16 percent among black women at the selected project in Dayton. Incomes rose in each year of the program.
The study compared participants' incomes to control groups from similar projects in the communities, the authors said. That allowed them to separate the effects of Jobs-Plus from other anti-poverty programs -- and from the ups and downs in the economy.
Riccio said they didn't do a formal cost-benefit analysis, but they estimate the government probably spent $2,000 to $3,000 for benefits and services for each of the participants above and beyond what they might have received.
Now that the project is wrapped up, the authors hope their research will help inform policy-makers, at a time of tight budgets, about what works in fighting poverty.
Rocha, 43, was in Jobs-Plus at a time when both of her daughters dropped out of school and her younger one became pregnant. The rent breaks helped her stay afloat, and the community support brought her together with parents having similar problems, she said.
Rocha was able to help her daughters get back in school and become certified nursing assistants. Her oldest daughter now is living on her own. Her youngest daughter and her grandson, who is 5, still live with Rocha while her daughter works and saves enough money to move out. Rocha hopes to go to college and buy her own home.
"Me myself, I've just been moving up little by little," she said.
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