Friday, October 5, 2012

Getting Ahead in Groups

By Matt DeVeau, Project Associate.

Last Wednesday, more than 100 community leaders from around the country gathered in Washington, D.C. to discuss “job clubs,” which are pretty much exactly what they sound like: clubs for unemployed people looking for jobs. But these groups can be more than just venues for sharing resume reviews and social media tips. In many instances, they provide participants with emotional support and confidence to help forge on through the nation’s painfully slow economic recovery.

While the clubs have been around since the 1970s, they have become more prevalent since the onset of the Great Recession. And while many clubs traditionally operated independently out of churches or community centers, the Department of Labor’s Center for Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnership launched an effort to coordinate clubs at the state and federal levels in May 2011. Last week’s conference was part of this campaign.

The Department of Labor estimates that there are approximately 3,000 job clubs in America, and their offerings are diverse. In West Warwick, Rhode Island, a vocational counselor volunteers his time to run a club at a public library. In Portland, Oregon, where Market Street has worked with economic development leaders, workforce development organization WorkSource Portland Metro East gained national attention in 2009 for its job club effort, and SE Works, Inc. has recently launched a club that focus on individuals with specific job re-entry barriers. But the common thread connecting the various types of clubs seems to be an emphasis on peer support. According to a 2011 Department of Labor memo:

“A central tenet of most Job Clubs is to act as a support group for unemployed people. In many (though not all) cases, Job Clubs view their work as more closely aligned with a grieving process model or 12-step treatment model rather than a workforce development model, where there are various stages of unemployment (grief, anger, denial, acceptance, etc.). The facilitator’s role is to help participants work through these various stages.”

This model is obviously not a one-size-fits-all solution. For instance, some individuals might not want to go through a job search and the accompanying emotions in a group setting. In California, where job club attendance is a mandatory component of the state’s welfare system, some participants certainly have their doubts. But there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that many individuals have benefitted from the approach.

It also seems that the mere process of working with a group of peers can help individuals overcome a variety of economic and social challenges. A July NPR segment highlighted a promising example in support of this claim: the Family Independence Initiative, a nonprofit group that “encourages low-income families to form small groups and help each other figure out how to get ahead.” Unlike job clubs, these groups tend to be focused on a variety of issues, not just employment. And instead of having a formal structure led by a facilitator, the groups are driven by the participants who set their own goals and steps for self-advancement. The NPR piece documented the actions of a group of low-income women in San Francisco who call themselves the “Fitness Five.” As its name would suggest, the group is primarily focused on promoting help among its members, but the women also discuss their children, finances, and past struggles with illness and substance abuse. The environment is completely unstructured – by design.

Such an informal approach might not seem like something that could generate immediate success, but the results are surprisingly good. FII carefully tracks the progress of its participants, who voluntarily provide the nonprofit with a wealth of information – from pay stubs and credit scores to children’s report cards – that is audited once a quarter by a FII liaison. At the end of the program’s first two years, 344 individuals in 86 households in Hawaii and California reported a 23 percent increase in income and a 240 percent increase in savings. Seventeen percent of the households bought a home, while 33 percent started or expanded a business.

FII’s results, which were achieved at a lower cost than other social programs, have generated interest from across the political spectrum – from the Obama Administration to the Heritage Foundation, according to NPR. But the FII approach, like job clubs, does not rely on top-down support from a state or federal entity – indeed, job clubs existed for decades before the Department of Labor took an interest. And to me, that’s the key advantage to these small support group models. They are something that communities can embrace right away, at a low cost, to help achieve community and economic development goals.