Opinion » Guest Opinion

Public-private partnerships for ending poverty

by Suzanne  Kenney
Thursday Jul 13, 2017

Public-private partnerships for ending poverty

The potential repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has resulted in something unexpected: an enormous boost in popularity for the government program. Proposed federal cuts to a range of other social safety net programs such as Head Start and Meals on Wheels have had a similar impact. Few Americans, it turns out, think it makes sense to eliminate programs that protect the most vulnerable among us.

That is a welcome change for publicly-funded, anti-poverty programs that are vital to our communities' economic and public health, but often criticized for political reasons. That said, these programs are just one piece of the anti-poverty puzzle, and partnership with business is also an important ingredient. Businesses and business leaders also have a role to play in ending poverty, and across the country, as public opinion shifts to support programs like the ACA, we are also seeing significant support for innovative public-private partnerships to fight poverty.

In Massachusetts, Gov. Charlie Baker continued his predecessor Deval Patrick's "pay-for-success" initiative by striking a deal with the local organization Jewish Vocational Service to provide educational services to immigrants and refugees. Under the terms, a group of philanthropic funders will front the cost of the program and if Jewish Vocational Service fulfills its goal of ensuring its students move into jobs with higher salaries within three years, the state will reimburse the investors and tack on additional funds so that they yield a profit. Should the program fail, investors absorb the loss at no cost to the taxpayer. As the Boston Globe recently editorialized, pay-for-success deals are "an innovative approach to paying for social-service projects that might otherwise languish amid tight state budgets."

The City of Philadelphia is addressing unemployment among former prisoners-a major cause of recidivism and poverty among those reentering society after being incarcerated-by reviving and revamping a tax credit program that incentivizes local businesses to hire them. The Fair Chance Hiring Initiative reimburses employers who hire "returning citizens" $5 per hour for each position, provided the employees work at least 21 hours per week for a minimum of $12.10 per hour.

New Jersey is taking a broader approach to helping former inmates reintegrate through the quasi-public nonprofit New Jersey Reentry Corporation (NJRC). The agency collaborates with the government and private sectors to provide comprehensive services aimed at ensuring returning citizens gain meaningful, sustainable employment-such as helping them obtain a driver's license, resolve outstanding legal fees and fines, secure housing and substance abuse treatment; and do individualized employment planning.

Here in Boston, Project Place has been adapting to the needs of the community it serves for 50 years. Founded in 1967 to serve homeless youth in the South End, the organization has evolved over time to continually meet the needs of neighborhood residents and the city as a whole. Today, we fulfill our mission of providing jobs, housing and hope for low-income and homeless people-including veterans and returning citizens-with a case-management model and a comprehensive range of job training and long-term housing programs. Our Work Skills and Employment Services program prepares people to enter the workforce with instruction in language, math and computer literacy, as well as in the mechanics of searching and interviewing for jobs. Advanced students are placed in jobs in one of Project Place's four Social Enterprise businesses, giving them valuable job experience and work history.

Partnerships with the City of Boston, local organizations, private individuals and companies who contract for the services of our Social Enterprises have been vital to the success of these businesses, with the income generated going towards the Project Place operating budget. Each year roughly 100 men and women are employed in our enterprises; 65 percent successfully obtain permanent, mainstream employment and stabilize their housing. One year later, 70 percent still hold jobs. Our partnerships with local employers are also critical to help homeless men and women change their lives. Each year over 400 individuals enter our programs and more than half move on to find employment with local employers with whom we have a strong committed partnership.

Some of our most effective public programs are under attack in Washington. We need them to survive, and continue. While private sector support could never replace that from the public sphere, innovative partnerships between the two are expanding the reach of both.

Suzanne Kenney is the executive director of Project Place.