Losing Hope in Detroit

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Jobs. They are supposedly the foremost concern of every Democrat and every Republican, and they are certainly the greatest concern for the 20 percent of American workers who are unemployed or underemployed, and the millions of people who have dropped out of the labor force altogether.

But you wouldn’t know it from Congress’ lack of urgency to confront and end $85 billion in across-the-board sequester cuts this year, despite the fact that these cuts are already reducing employment and shrinking gross domestic product, and straining state budgets as a loss of federal grants makes it more difficult to fund vital services.

Even the very programs designed to prepare the American workforce for high demand jobs — another Congressional favorite, at least rhetorically — are being squeezed.

Focus: HOPE's "Earn & Learn" graduates pose for graduation photos in March 2013. The E&L program is expected to be discontinued later this year because of funding cuts.

Since 1968, Focus: HOPE has served the people of Detroit and its suburbs through career training, neighborhood revitalization and fighting hunger. The training programs have placed nearly 12,000 at-risk men and women in family-supporting careers, including machining, advanced manufacturing, information technology and engineering.

But according to Steve Ragan, chief development and external relations officer at Focus: HOPE, just as employers are ready to hire again in the Detroit metropolitan area, sequestration is limiting the organization’s ability to help those looking for work.

“We’re often contracting with regional or local Michigan workforce agencies, and they are very conscious of the impact of sequestration on their budgets, so it’s really slowed down funding at a time that is critical,” Ragan told me. “We’ve been waiting to see people hiring for a long time — now we have employers interested in hiring our students, a waiting list of people who want job training, but we can’t fund the programs as we have in the past.”

Ragan said that the information technology programs are being hit particularly hard, and the “Earn and Learn” program — focusing on jobs for at-risk minority youth and adults who have been incarcerated or are chronically unemployed — is expected to be discontinued. To date, Focus: HOPE is 35 percent behind budgeted revenue for workforce development, or approximately $800,000. The average job training cost per student is $5,000 — though it varies greatly from program to program— which means that the organization is down 160 funded spots through two-thirds of its fiscal year. Ragan said at the current pace 250 to 350 students will miss out on job training and “the impact on personal lives and families is devastating.”

“Our capacity used to be limited not by money but by getting the students who could commit to the academic rigor of our programs,” said Ragan. “Now we are capped by money and it’s often a month-to-month challenge.”

[J]ust as employers are ready to hire again in the Detroit metropolitan area, sequestration is limiting the organization’s ability to help those looking for work.
These cuts are a serious blow to a community that is struggling. According to the Economic Policy Institute, the unemployment rate of African Americans in Michigan is 18.7 percent, about two and a half times that of whites (7.5 percent) as it has been for much of the last five years. The national black unemployment rate is 14 percent, and of the 24 states with large enough African-American populations to track with federal Current Population Survey data, Michigan has the highest African-American unemployment rate.

Most Focus: HOPE students come from the Detroit public school system and many have what Ragan described as “very serious foundational education problems.”

“In recent months, we had a student with a high school diploma who was reading at a 1st grade level,” said Ragan. “We see lots of students with 3rd, 5th, or 6th grade reading and math levels—so our first task is usually bringing them up to a 7th or 8th grade level so they are prepared to study in our career training programs.”

Ragan said Focus: HOPE takes great pride in “maintaining a job placement rate in at least the high 70s for our graduates — and committing to lifetime assistance with job placement.” The organization also provides scholarships for graduates who want to pursue a bachelor’s or associate’s degree.

“We have partnerships with most of the universities in the area that have engineering and technology programs,” said Ragan.

Ragan emphasized that sequestration is the latest chapter in a “persistent reduction” of public investment in skilled job training that is “especially difficult in a struggling community like Detroit.”

“It’s been a huge mistake,” he said. “This is an investment in our economic recovery, but we are spreading reduced money among more people in need. We’ve become a victim of hyperbole and the political battle.”

Greg Kaufmann is a freelance writer and Nation contributor covering poverty in America, primarily through his blog, This Week in Poverty. His work has also been featured on MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry show, CBSNews.com, NPR.org, WashingtonPost.com, Common Dreams and Alternet. He serves as an adviser for the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.
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