The Districts Dime

Making a Good Jobs Program Even Better: How to Strengthen DC’s Project Empowerment

April 1st, 2015 | by Ed Lazere

A largely successful effort by the District to help people find lasting work would do even more good if some changes are made.

4.1.2015 project empowermentEach year, the District gives hope to 800 residents who struggle with unemployment by placing them in jobs and paying their wages for up to six months. They work in a range of jobs – from restaurants to non-profit health clinics to DC government agencies. Project Empowerment could be even more effective, however, by beefing up the support provided to workers and taking other steps to help connect participants to the workplace, based on the DC Fiscal Policy Institute’s review of the program.

Most Project Empowerment participants face employment barriers because of a criminal record. For them, a subsidized job offers a chance at work experience, networking, and skills development in a supportive environment. Ideally, that helps lead to permanent, unsubsidized employment. Subsidized jobs programs can help employers, too, by offering free or low-cost labor to expand their business and the chance to test out a worker before making a long-term hire.

At the same time, the success of subsidized jobs programs is not guaranteed and depends on careful design. About half of the people who start Project Empowerment are working in an unsubsidized job after six months, and one-quarter are working a year later. While this matches the performance of similar programs, there are ways that Project Empowerment could do better.  DCFPI’s review recommends the following steps.

  • Improve private-sector job placements: The most effective programs place workers on the payroll of their employer but in DC, Project Empowerment participants are paid by the program, and this can make them feel less like a real worker. Some programs pay only part of the wages and set an expectation that good employees will be hired, but DC does not.
  • Provide robust coaching for workers. Employers note that timeliness, workplace behavior, and related characteristics are key to retaining employment. Project Empowerment doesn’t have enough job coaches to help participants in these areas, and there is no job coaching once participants transition to unsubsidized jobs. 
  • Build more connections to education and training: A sizable share of Project Empowerment participants have not finished high school, so more is needed to connect with literacy programs, either outside Project Empowerment or in combination with a Project Empowerment job. In addition, residents who complete Project Empowerment and fail to keep a job may benefit from skills training, but the program does not have many provisions for connect participants to training. 
  • Improve collection of data on program outcomes: Project Empowerment has the capacity to measure its own effectiveness – such as job retention and reductions in criminal recidivism – but this information is not reported in a useful fashion. Nor does it appear to be used to inform program improvements. The District should track data on participants more fully to assess the impact on long-term employment, wages, and recidivism, and to assess the kinds of job placements that are likely to be most successful.  

Our full review of Project Empowerment can be found here.

To print a copy of today’s blog, click here.



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A Resource to Help You Break Down How Funding Works for DC Schools

March 26th, 2015 | by Soumya Bhat

Just in time for budget season, DCFPI is releasing a guide to help parents and policymakers understand how money gets from the DC budget down into the classroom in every DC public school and public charter school. How we invest in public education is one of the most important decisions we make as a community. This updated guide will help parents and others understand and have a voice in that process.

DCFPI’s Investing in Our Kids: District of Columbia School Finance Primer examines the following questions:



  •  How are the budgets for the DC Public Schools system (DCPS) and each public charter schools set?
  •  How does DCPS allocate funds to local schools within the system?
  •  How has the way we fund schools changed in recent years?
  •  How do individual schools make spending decisions?
  •  How are school facilities funded?

To learn all about that and more, check out the primer here!

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What’s in Store for Next Year’s Budget? Highlights of DCFPI’s Budget Forum

March 24th, 2015 | by Ed Lazere

Mayor Bowser will commit $100 million to build affordable housing next year – through the Housing Production Trust Fund – but the city faces an overall budget shortfall that will require cuts in some other services. Those are some of the takeaways from DCFPI’s budget forum held last week, where we invited staff from Mayor Bowser’s budget office, the office of the Chief Financial Officer, and the DC Council’s budget office to discuss the city’s economy and finances.

In addition, DCFPI’s Wes Rivers reminded us that, despite an economy that looks strong on the surface, many residents are being left behind, facing low and stagnant wages, unemployment that has not fully come down from the recession, and the disappearance of low-cost housing in the private market. Rivers highlighted the need to fund services to help families facing these challenges, and stressed that DCFPI hopes Mayor Bowser will consider increasing revenues to meet these needs.

Steven Giachetti, Director of Revenue Estimation for the Chief Financial Officer, reported that DC’s overall economy is in good shape, with an increasing population and a growing number of working residents. The city is outperforming the suburbs in key indicators, and economic growth is leading to a solid increase in tax collections. Here is Steven’s presentation.

Despite the good economic news, Jenny Reed, Deputy Director of the Mayor’s Office of Budget and Finance, noted that the city faces a shortfall – expected revenues are less than what is needed to maintain existing services. Reed explained that while revenues are increasing, the growth is less than had been expected. She also pointed out that there is a shortfall partly because plans to find substantial efficiency savings over the past year largely did not materialize.

Reed noted that the mayor will commit $100 million to the Housing Production Trust Fund, more resources to meet a rising number of students in public and charter schools, and more funding to meet the city’s obligation to Metro. To fund those and deliver a balanced budget, Mayor Bowser is considering ways to scale back services or raise revenues, relying in part on ideas generated at three budget forums held this year. “Everything is on the table,” Jenny said.

Angela Joyner, Deputy Budget Director, for the DC Council, explained the Council’s role in the budget process and had a series of great charts on how the city raises and spends money. Joyner also highlighted the DC Council’s efforts last year to approve the recommendations of the DC Tax Revision Commission, but that most of them remain unfunded. She noted that many Councilmembers are eager to see continued implementation of those recommendations. Here is Angela’s presentation.

Wes Rivers highlighted a number of needs that DCFPI hopes the Mayor will address – beyond her notable commitment to the Housing Production Trust Fund. This includes the family homelessness crisis and need to replace the DC General shelter, as well as looming cut off of TANF cash benefits and employment services to 6,000 families.

Rivers discussed the importance of looking for new revenue sources to meet these needs while also maintaining investments in other critical services such as health care and education. A cuts-only approach to addressing the budget shortfall would hurt efforts to continue making the city attractive to residents and businesses, and it would limit Mayor Bowser’s desire to address growing inequality in DC. DCFPI recommends using some of last year’s surplus – given that the city’s savings are now at a record-high level – as well as adopting new revenues increases, to limit the need for damaging cuts. Here is Wes’ presentation.

The Mayor’s budget will be released next Thursday – stay tuned to the District’s Dime for more budget updates! 

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Ensuring Early Literacy Efforts Reach All DC Families

March 19th, 2015 | by Soumya Bhat

A new program being proposed by the Council to ensure all DC children have “books from birth” would be a great addition to the city’s early childhood system. It would add to the city’s efforts to support young children and help them prepare for when they start school. We hope this proposal can be tweaked to ensure that books get to children who may be hard to reach, such as those in homeless families.Parent reading to child

Access to quality early childhood and development programs is critical to a child’s academic success later in life. Research shows the tremendous value of exposing children to early literacy and language development from birth and that low-income children have the most to gain from increased exposure to early literacy. One study found that lower-income children hear 30 million fewer words within the first four years of life than children in higher-income families.[1]

The “Books from Birth” program, modeled after a similar initiative in Tennessee, would provide every child in the city with a new, age-appropriate book every month until they turn five years old. The books would be mailed to the child’s home, along with information on other educational programs and services. The program would be managed by the DC Public Library.

 It will be important to ensure that families without stable housing are able to benefit from the program. Books from Birth will need to address challenges such as getting books to children at the DC General shelter or other family homeless shelters. DCFPI encourages the Council and DC Public Library to explore outreach strategies to ensure these homeless families are made aware of the program and are still able to access Books from Birth. For example, what role will DC General staff be expected to play, if any, in storing books and are they able to take on this capacity? How will families be able to take their books with them if they move to another type of housing but are still registered and eligible for the program?

We also urge the Council to make the registration process for the program streamlined and accessible, so that there are no barriers for parents with low levels of literacy. The proposal includes sensible provisions to enlist health care practitioners – such as a child’s first pediatrician visit – in referring families to Books from Birth. In addition, the program could have DC Public Library partner with the city’s program to visit the homes of vulnerable families with newborns and young children to get additional referrals and ensure that all children benefit from Books from Birth.

You can read our full testimony here.

To print a copy of today’s blog, click here.

[1] Hart, B. & Risley, T.R. “The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3” (2003, spring). American Educator, pp.4-9.

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DC Can Do More to Help Parents Struggling to Find Employment

March 13th, 2015 | by Kate Coventry

With so many parents struggling to find jobs, Mayor Bowser and the DC Council need to take steps soon to help thousands of families who face losing employment services and cash benefits this fall. Many of these parents face employment challenges – including a lack of good-paying jobs for workers without a college degree – which means thousands of children could fall deeper into poverty with little hope that their parents will find good jobs.

The best move is for Mayor Bowser’s new employment and human services leaders to develop a plan to assist these families – and to delay cutting families off for a year while a new plan is being developed.

Even if they are doing everything they can but still can’t find work, more than 6,000 families – with 13,000 children – are slated to be cut off from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) this October, because they have received assistance for more than 60 months. They will lose cash assistance and important job preparation services, worsening the big challenges that already make it difficult to get jobs, like disabilities or low literacy.

Many others will struggle to find a job despite their best efforts simply because job prospects remain weak for DC residents with less than a bachelor’s degree. One-third of DC adults with a high school degree are either unemployed, working part-time despite wanting a full-time job, or too discouraged to even look for work. Others are working but have seen wages fall while housing costs rise.

DC should delay the TANF cut off to allow for the development of a plan to serve the District’s most vulnerable families. The District should do what 44 states do: allow families who face big challenges to receive TANF after they reach the time limit, while they continue to make progress toward employment or other goals. It makes sense to prevent these families from falling further behind.

Additionally, the new plan to help these families should include services other states have found effective at helping parents get jobs. This includes specialized assessments to identify disabilities and helping individuals figure out how to cope with them at work. For example, some people have disabilities that make it difficult to read and understand written instructions. Vocational rehabilitation counselors can help negotiate with employers for accommodations such as being given instructions verbally.

Economic recovery in DC has been uneven, and many will be left behind without improved services. Helping families stay afloat until parents find work is important to ensuring that all District families can have a brighter future.

To read a copy of DCFPI’s testimony on TANF, click here.

To print a copy of today’s blog, click here.

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