Helping Communities With Large Populations of Ex-Prisoners

Do you know someone who has been in prison or have you ever been in prison? It’s not that rare anymore in this country to answer yes.

Though the U.S. recidivism rate is as high as 50-75 percent within five years, suggesting many of the same people end up in prison more than once, about 650,000 men and women are released from prison every year. They are returned to the communities from where they came with slightly less than what they had when they first went in, except now, they’re stigmatized, have less chance of getting a job, and few skills to keep up with changing educational requirements and work environments.

It’s enough to leave these people with a feeling they’re never going to get back on their feet or achieve more than the little they started with.

But to become prepared for a new day and reduce that chance of going back in, prisoners need to learn skills while locked up, and isn’t that what prison is supposed to do? Rehabilitate, not just punish and incarcerate?

And less face it, if prisoners don’t get the skills needed to begin the climb up the economic ladder, communities with large ex-prisoner populations are going to remain less safe and families in them will be less stable. The cycle that resulted in these people going into prison will repeat itself.

So what to do? Education is key. Getting lessons in new skills will make prisoners more employable upon release.

Writing for CNN, Gerard Robinson and Van Jones suggest ways to extend opportunities for people who are returning to communities that most need workers who can earn a decent income and be productive members of society.

First, we need to lift the ban on access to Pell Grants for incarcerated individuals. This approach provides motivated individuals an opportunity to turn their lives around. When the Pell Grant program began, all qualifying students including the incarcerated were eligible to receive small amounts of federal funding to help pay for college tuition.

Beginning with the enactment of the 1994 crime bill, incarcerated individuals were excluded from receiving federal funds. As a result, nearly 350 in-prison college programs across the country disintegrated.

In 2015, the Second Chance Pell pilot program was announced, which has already helped 12,000 incarcerated individuals receive grants to access higher education in state and federal facilities across the country. We should expand this pilot program, or make it permanent.

Second, we should expand access to all federal student loan programs for incarcerated juveniles and adults. Some believe this approach makes fiscal sense and will help make our streets safer and economy more prosperous. For example, a study from the RAND Corp. showed that a $1 investment in education yields $4 to $5 in public safety cost-savings. It also found that individuals who received education while behind bars were 43% less likely to end up back in prison and 13% more likely to obtain employment following their release.

Third, we must ensure that individuals convicted of drug-related crimes are not barred from financial aid or federal student loans if they choose to pursue a college degree. It is counterproductive to lock individuals out of opportunity for higher learning after they have paid their debt to society, especially when there has been a growing, bipartisan movement to ensure that individuals convicted of drug crimes receive access to treatment and rehabilitation, moving them toward a path to success. It is past time.

The Institute for Higher Education Policy is pushing these ideas in a new campaign called #CollegeNotPrison, and #cut50, the national bipartisan criminal justice reform organization founded by Jones, is trying to introduce these programs where they are most needed.

Helping the 95 percent of prisoners who return to the neighborhoods they started in not only gives purpose to the lives of those who went down the wrong path, but ultimately aids the communities to which they return.

Pandhandling and Homelessness: One Mayor Who Looked the Problem in the Face and Helped

TPOH has long repeated the sentiment that the least among us must be treated like assets to be developed, not liabilities to be managed, so it’s heartening to see that the mayor of Albuquerque, N.M., is embodying the effort to show people who are “at their lowest that they have real value.”

The Washington Post reports that Mayor Richard Berry decided to test the “Will Work for …” signs held by homeless panhandlers by actually starting a program to give work for hourly pay, lunch, and a shelter bed. Turns out many of the folks holding up the signs are willing to jump on the offer of a job. The program is so successful, it’s now slated for growth.

Next month will be the first anniversary of Albuquerque’s There’s a Better Way program, which hires panhandlers for day jobs beautifying the city. In partnership with a local nonprofit that serves the homeless population, a van is dispatched around the city to pick up panhandlers who are interested in working. …

In less than a year since its start, the program has given out 932 jobs clearing 69,601 pounds of litter and weeds from 196 city blocks. And more than 100 people have been connected to permanent employment. …

The There’s a Better Way van employs about 10 workers a day but could easily take more. When the van fills, people have begged to get a spot next time, she said. That’s why the city has increased funding for the program to expand it from two to four days a week. And it inspired St. Martin’s to start its own day labor program, connecting the jobless to employers in the area who could offer side jobs.

As the Post reports, panhandling is objectionable to residents in many cities. Very few people enjoy walking down the sidewalk and having a group of unkempt men holding out their hands or smelling the foul odor of urine at the crosswalk.

But if those scenarios are uncomfortable for most, imagine what it feels like for the person on the other side of that equation.

The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty reports that municipal laws prohibiting panhandling extend beyond begging for money. “Homeless people are being criminally punished for being in public even when they have no other alternatives.”

What’s an alternative? Well, for people without family or friends as resources, in cities where the number of homeless exceed the number of emergency shelter beds or affordable housing units, hospitals and jails serve as costly temporary “housing” options for homeless “criminals.”

There are more innovative ways to go about it, however.

In its 2013 Comprehensive Report on Homelessness, the Utah Housing and Community Development Division reported that the annual cost of emergency room visits and jail stays for an average homeless person was $16,670, while providing an apartment and a social worker cost only $11,000.

A 2013 analysis by the University of New Mexico Institute for Social Research of the Heading Home Initiative in Albuquerque, New Mexico showed that, by providing housing, the city reduced spending on homelessness-related jail costs by 64%.

Those are just some of the findings in the law center’s report. It also points out that making criminals of homeless people only hinders their chance for getting jobs or finding housing, and it creates financial penalties they cannot pay.

So if communities really want to help end homelessness, one way to start would be to find innovative solutions, like the 100,000 Homes Campaign, which helped 235 communities “identify all of their homeless neighbors by name; track and measure local housing placement progress; and adopt methods of housing homeless people more quickly, using process improvements.”

The result? 101,628 people and families, including 31,171 homeless veterans, found housing in under four years.

The solutions are there if we look the problem in the face. That’s what Albuquerque’s mayor proved willing to do.

Read more about Mayor Berry’s work program for panhandlers.

Here’s a video by the city about the program.

Get Out of Dodge? American Migration Slows, Homebodies Abound

Geographic mobility has always played a big part in the “American dream.” For my part, I have moved between states or countries 10 times. But you don’t have to share my apparent wanderlust to realize that picking up and moving can inflect a person’s life for the better. Especially in a hyper-competitive economy, we would intuitively expect people to be moving more and more to seize opportunities and find the best occupational fits.

I recently got curious about this topic and whether reality matched my expectations. I spent an afternoon digging into some migration data from the Census Bureau. And what I found surprised me: People today are actually moving less often than the historical norm.

Much less.

The data are astonishing. In the 1960s, roughly 20 percent of the US population moved in any given year. Since then, that fraction has been cut almost in half. Looking at the numbers another way: While the U.S. population has increased by more than 75 percent since 1960, the total number of people who move annually is roughly the same.

Curiously, those who would seem most compelled to move appear to be especially stuck. Look at Mississippi, which has one of the nation’s highest unemployment rates. One might expect to see outmigration to places such as North Dakota, where unemployment is about half as high. Yet Mississippians today are even less likely to move out of state than they were before the Great Recession.

Why the decline?

Reading through the possible explanations, one popular hypothesis was that our aging population explains a lot of this decline. Younger adults have always moved more relative to older people, and so a population in which they make up a declining share would be expected to be less mobile on average.

This is part of the story, but it doesn’t capture everything that’s going on. For example, it turns out mobility has dropped over time for all ages. In fact, since the onset of the Great Recession, the decline in mobility has actually been the most dramatic among millennials. Other factors must also be contributing. Chief suspects include a more broadly stagnant economy, a housing crisis that left many anchored to homes while they wait for values to rebound, and — especially interesting to me — a regrettable cultural shift that undersells the importance of entrepreneurial living.

Let’s talk solutions. First, we could reform our education system to better equip people with valuable skills that transcend particular organizations and localities. Reviving vocational and technical training programs via creative voucher schemes would be a good start.

Second, we can make moving easier. First and foremost, we should fine-tune welfare programs, many of which have policy quirks that can dissuade the vulnerable from relocating or from seeking employment at all. We could also experiment with small-scale programs in which the government offers relocation allowances or collects information about employment opportunities in other regions, and then rigorously assess their effectiveness.

But more than any policy tweak, we must set out to rebuild a culture that prizes dynamism and treating life as an entrepreneurial project. That starts with leaders who testify proudly to the true pillars of the American dream — courage, adventure, optimism, and a unique refusal to be tied down to our pasts.

When Alexis de Tocqueville came to our shores in the early 1800s, he didn’t find leaders who stoked — and sought to profit from — the masses’ fears of change. In fact, he found quite the opposite, noting that the American people embraced instability and churn as a source of wonder and self-improvement. Today, that sense of adventure is eroding and trepidation is taking its place.

Telling Americans they should be afraid or angry about our changing economy is exactly the wrong answer. The only acceptable response is to fight proudly and boldly for solutions. And I’m convinced that one of those solutions is to help people get out of Dodge.

This section is adapted from my latest New York Times piece.