Is the mainstream American workplace unfriendly to the very poor? I contend that it is. What is my evidence? I am a consultant who facilitates training for hundreds of workforce development professionals annually. When I conduct my workshop entitled, “Helping the Poor Find and Keep a Job,” I hear the frustration expressed by those who attend. It seems that finding jobs for those who lack a work history is difficult, but getting the person to keep the job once it is found is nearly impossible. It seems that the very skills, values, behaviors, and thinking that aid individuals in surviving generational poverty might actually create barriers to sustained employment.
The Center for American Progress Task Force on Poverty proposed a strategy guided by four principles to cut U.S. poverty in half: promote decent work, promote opportunity for all, ensure economic security, and help people build wealth. In keeping with these broad objectives, I would like to suggest that American companies, both large and small, take a number of steps to make their workplace more responsive to the needs of the newly employed poor. “Decent work” may mean something different to impoverished folks than to those who live in the middle class.
Immediate gratification is a strong motivator in poverty culture. Waiting two-to-four weeks for a paycheck doesn’t work well for people who live hand to mouth. Offering weekly or even daily pay, and paying in cash rather than check or electronic deposit offers a great help to those who don’t have checking accounts. Cashing one’s paycheck at a check cashing store generally costs 10 percent of the face value of the check, and the poor can’t afford this loss.
The promise of a year-end bonus as a performance incentive is another middle class employment practice that falls outside the imagination of need-it-now workers. Creating a “company store” where workers purchase needed items using “performance points” earned through a demonstration of a strong work ethic is a much more potent motivator for the type of responsiveness employers want to cultivate with a bonus system. Items the employee can’t purchase with food stamps such as household paper products, school supplies, clothing, and tickets to local entertainment venues or sporting events are prizes that stimulate the urge to be on time for work and follow work rules.
Sponsoring a brown bag lunch series entitled, “How to Succeed at Work without Really Trying,” where a discussion of the hidden rules of the middle class could be an asset to those who do not possess the social graces valued in a middle class work environment. Deferring a small amount of salary, perhaps 5-10 percent, into a corporate savings account would also help the impoverished to accumulate enough wealth to move to a safer home or purchase reliable transportation.
Another strategy is to assign an individual mentor or work buddy to offer support and encouragement to an employee who finds the rules of a middle class workplace puzzling and foreign. In the neighborhood, most impoverished individuals have their “people” they count on in a crunch. The work buddy might serve an equivalent role on the job.
Setting up a barter system and a ride-share program where employees barter skills such as car repair, home repair, hairdressing, lawn maintenance, and other services for rides to work or in trade for services they need is another way to honor the traditions and skills of the long-term unemployed in the context of the work environment.
People are happy to the extent that they feel they have control over their lives. Why should the impoverished person have to make all the changes to succeed at work? Perhaps the work environment itself might evolve a bit to accommodate the time honored and respected traditions of those who have known only poverty since childhood.