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Monday, February 20, 2012

The Seasonal University

Lauren’s glasses were stolen three years ago and she’s gone without ever since. Lauren had multi-vision lenses - like I just got - and I can tell you, I don’t know how she’s functioning without them. She tells us she can’t drive or read to her kids without glasses and asks for our help in replacing them.

What strikes me about Lauren’s story, in addition to her important need, is a small statement in her narrative. She tells us “I work at a university in food service. It’s seasonal work, but consistent. I am laid off now for the holidays but will start working again when the next term starts.”

Read that again – Lauren tells us that her work in food service for a university is “seasonal” and that she’s “laid off” for the holidays.

I’ve got friends who work for universities - some as professors, some in facilities management, and others in administration. None of them would consider their work to be “seasonal” and none of them is ever laid off over the holidays or summer break. It’s not the way a university would retain its faculty, staff, and maintenance professionals.

Yet the university for which Lauren works – or the food service contractor they employ - treats her as disposable, laying her off when they don’t need her and rehiring her on their terms. Lauren tells us that the work is “consistent,” which I can only take to mean that she knows her job will be there when the winter or summer break is over. This means that her employer knows she’ll be there, even though they’ve done nothing to earn her loyalty.

There are many who would look at Lauren’s case and wonder why she hasn’t got health insurance or hasn’t saved up for the glasses she needs. Some might think she’s not a good financial planner in managing her resources. I would say that the university and its food service contractor are doing a poor job in managing their resources. If they deal with employees as disposable units, providing neither job security, benefits, nor health insurance, then they’re creating many of the problems we see across the social sector.

Let me be clear, I realize that there are, indeed, fields in which contract labor and seasonal employment make a world of sense. I can find no explanation for why food service workers, whose labor is needed whenever school is in session, should be treated as contract workers and actually laid off over winter break. It’s not as if the university or food service company are unsure whether or not there will be a need for food service come January. The students are coming back and they’ll need to eat – every January, every year.

Our city’s subsidized housing resources, social service resources, and now private donor dollars will go to help Lauren – and I hope they, and we, will help her. But why is the help necessary? Because Lauren is being treated as a food service device rather than as a member of the community of workers, teachers, and administration that makes her university hum.

It’s easy to fault low-income adults for decisions we perceive they may have made. In Lauren’s case, the fault for her inability to access the health resources she needs for her vision care lies not with her, but with the system that employs her as disposable and keeps her in limbo between employed and not.

- megan kashner, founder & ceo

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Quintessential Need

Christina is pursuing what she thinks is the best long-term strategy for her family’s stability. She went to school to become a registered nurse and hopes to secure a position in a hospital in the coming months.

Christina ran into a roadblock, however, when her husband lost his job and the family couldn’t come up with the money she would need to sign up for and complete two certification courses necessary for her to secure an entry-level nursing position.

This story is the quintessential Benevolent need. It’s so incredibly clear that one can almost quantify the cost of not meeting it.

Let’s think about that. It will cost $250 in support for Christina to move from stuck to employable. The cost to Christina’s family and to the welfare system of not overcoming that hurdle is even greater and more tangled.

If Christina does not get certified and employed, then…

  • The City’s and Christina’s investment in the costs of her nursing education will have been misspent.
  • Christina’s children’s child care - subsidized on a sliding scale - will require more public funding if Christina’s employment is lower-paying, as it will be in a job which does not utilize her new education.
  • With Christina unemployed or underemployed, the costs of the overall safety net will be further taxed, potentially including food banks, social services, job training and workforce development programs and more.
  • Finally, Christina’s family could be eligible for the Earned Income Tax Credit each year as her family remains under the income threshold, costing our tax base even more.

So if $250 spent now can save all the thousands of dollars in expense I’ve touched on above, then why is it so hard for Christina and all those in similar situations to secure the support they need? That, of course, is a still longer and more complex question. The answer lies in the shifts we’ve made in this country in the ways we spend what we call “welfare” dollars in the past fifteen years or so. Rather than putting cash supports in the hands of those who are struggling to reach the goal of stability and sustainability, our system now focuses on providing in-kind support in the form of subsidies and service.

There are clearly shortcomings to our current systems of supports for those living in low income circumstances if $250 in discretionary cash is unattainable but thousands of dollars in consequential expenses are readily available.

By helping Christina over this hurdle of nursing certification courses, we can not only help her family move forward towards stability and success, but we can also help prevent thousands of unnecessary expenses to our social safety net and shine a light on just how essential cash supports are for families along their paths to financial stability.