While serving on the board of a homeless shelter in Indianapolis between 2002 and 2012, David Palmer sometimes led Bible studies for the people staying there. He regularly heard a similar refrain.
“When I would go, I would typically ask people, ‘How are you doing?’” he recalled. “And the answer was so often, ‘I’m looking for a job.’ And I heard that over and over and over again.”
The problem wasn’t a weak economy—the men at Wheeler Mission struggled to find jobs even when it was strong, Palmer said. He listed several reasons: a felony record, a history of drug or alcohol abuse, no transportation, minimal if any prior work experience, living in a homeless mission, poor language skills, and no one to vouch for their work performance. Palmer said someone leaving addiction, prison, or homelessness typically earned $8 to $10 an hour—less than $17,000 per year.
The U.S. economy currently is strong, with low unemployment and plenty of jobs, but the numbers can be deceptive. The available jobs pay more but also require more skills and education than in the past. People without the right training, especially those who are homeless or leaving prison, can struggle to land a job capable of supporting an independent life or a family.
Palmer came up with a solution for his community: Purposeful Design, a woodworking business that employs men leaving homelessness and addiction, and WORLD’s 2019 Northeast winner in the Hope Awards for Effective Compassion. Woodworking does not require specific education or experience. But jobs like that are a shrinking subset of the American economy, creating more challenges for poverty fighters and the people they want to help.
Industries like manufacturing, construction, and agriculture historically offered people a chance to learn a trade, work hard, and earn a decent income without extensive education. As technology has advanced and manufacturing jobs have moved overseas, the American economy has shifted so that most lower-paying jobs are in the service industry, and most higher-paying jobs are in technology. The service industry—including hospitality, retail, restaurants, and entertainment—tends to offer fewer hours and less stable pay than manufacturing and other traditional manual labor. Many low-wage workers have multiple part-time jobs but don’t receive benefits from any of them.
“All affluent societies are service economies—there are no exceptions,” wrote Nicholas Eberstadt, an American Enterprise Institute scholar. The United States has not automated its industries at the rate of other countries like South Korea, but it is steadily becoming a high-tech economy, with mixed consequences.
“If you are lucky enough to have had access to good education and training in skills from your employer, then you’re much, much better off [in today’s economy] than you were before,” another AEI scholar, Aparna Mathur, explained. “On the other hand, if you did not get the right education and the right skills training, then you’re much worse off than you were before.” She added that the economy is not likely to shift back toward manual jobs like manufacturing or construction.
Each month, the U.S. Private Sector Job Quality Index (JQI) uses Bureau of Labor Statistics data to report how many production and nonsupervisory jobs offer weekly incomes above and below the average for that industry. The JQI report released in December showed that in 1990 there were approximately 94 jobs with weekly pay above the average for every 100 that paid below average. In December 2019, that number fell to just under 81.
But the tight labor market is pushing employers to open the doors to more people. Some tech companies like Google and Amazon offer paid on-the-job training, and South Carolina has created an apprenticeship program with tax credits for employers who participate.
“I think on average we need to invest much more in skills training and education … so that everybody is able to take advantage of the economy we’re seeing today,” Mathur said.
This shifting economy changes what poverty fighting looks like, as well.
Instead of expecting homeless people or others to just “get a job,” Christians must recognize the barriers facing people looking for work. Helping someone find a job may require connecting them with educational opportunities or helping with transportation or childcare. It could even mean imitating David Palmer, who started a business that offered more than just a job.
“We’re not here just to teach woodworking or just to offer a paycheck, but to get under the skin,” he said. “And we know that begins with heart change.”