Understanding Unemployment: Why Work is More Than a Job

Posted on February 28, 2017

A job is more than a means to a paycheck. It’s more than a means to provide for one’s self and one’s family. It’s a place of fulfillment, purpose, and pride. A job provides routine and security, not to mention community and connection to others. Humans are unique in their ability and desire to work. Yet, work is tiresome, stressful, and for many – hard to find. While a job can provide meaning, stability, and prosperity, unemployment can detrimentally affect an individual’s relationships, finances, and situation.

It’s not surprising that when trying to uncover the causes and solutions to poverty, unemployment is at the crux. A job can provide the most direct pathway out of poverty, and the loss of a job can kick start the downward spiral into financial hardship.

For those in poverty, securing and retaining a job is often the impetus for substantial life change. With a steady income, increased self-confidence, increased access to healthcare, and opportunities for growth, a job can change the tide for an individual and his or her family.

Unfortunately, it’s rarely that easy.

Poverty isn’t simple or forgiving, which is why millions are trapped in the cycle for generations. Anyone close to poverty – including those working to help others break the cycle – will tell you: There isn’t one solution to poverty. The problem is complex and the solutions must be comprehensive to affect change.

More often than not, employment is a key component of the solution. That begs the questions — what are some of the causes and effects of unemployment, and how can programs most effectively help those in poverty rise out through work? These are big questions that go far outside the scope of this blog post, so we’ll continue to explore unemployment and poverty in upcoming posts. First, let’s begin understanding unemployment.

Understanding Unemployment

Unemployment is no easier to demystify than poverty. Some lack the training, skills, or education necessary to secure a job. Some, after losing a job, are overqualified for positions or they’re aging out of the workforce. Others have never had a role model or example in their life of consistent work. Some have had successful careers and lost everything. For others, poverty is all they’ve known.

Some are out of a job for weeks or months. For others – it can be years. And, the obstacles surrounding long-term unemployment become more complex with time.

Long-term unemployment is defined as looking for work for 27 weeks or more – roughly six months. Once someone hits the six-month mark, they are less attractive to potential employers and are less likely to find a job. The economy also significantly influences long-term unemployment. The percentage of unemployed workers who were seeking employment for longer than six months doubled between 2007 and 2013 to almost 40 percent of the unemployed.

But, it’s not just an economic problem. The consequences of long-term unemployment are manifold. Joblessness is correlated with poor nutrition and health, as well as high property crime. Unemployment has detrimental effects not just on someone’s finances, but also on their psyche. The effects of unemployment on mental health are significant. Depression is more common in the unemployed – occurring at more than twice the rate than those with full-time work. For the long-term unemployed, it’s even higher. Unemployment is also commonly associated with anxiety and low self-esteem.

It makes sense. A job is a defining part of our existence. We spend more time working than doing almost anything else. It gives us meaning, purpose, and a livelihood. The loss of a job and unemployment come riddled with self-doubt, hopelessness, and despair. And, the barriers to overcome unemployment grow larger with time.

How can we help those in poverty look for long-term, stable work?

Workforce Development is Making a Difference

The persistent problem of unemployment and its significant role in cyclical poverty is why workforce development programs have sprung up in communities across the country. Workforce development programs serve those facing the greatest barriers to stable employment, equipping them with the knowledge, access, and training they need to independently and successfully enter or re-enter the workforce. Programs include job search training, skills training, and job placement, among other things.

What makes these programs successful? The University of Chicago identified a few key elements to successful programs.

  • COMPREHENSIVE APPROACH: Successful programs address various aspects of unemployment. Services usually include hard and soft skills training, meeting basic physical (childcare, transportation, housing, and work attire) and psychological needs, teaching financial literacy, addressing the importance of the family, and remaining with a participant after employment to ensure retention.
  • COMMITMENT AND AGILITY: An organization that stays true to its mission, has strong leadership, and can adaptively adjust to the needs of those they serve is most successful at catalyzing sustainable, long-term change.
  • COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT: Organizations with strong community ties and external relationships are the most poised to help place participants in long-term, stable jobs.

We’ve seen these critical elements of programs at work. Our Fall 2016 S+ Catalysts demonstrate these components in their commitment to help individuals rise permanently out of poverty.

Cara helps students address the root causes of their predicaments and prepare for the realities of the workplace through life and career skills training. Because securing a job is only the beginning to finding real success, Cara focuses on job retention and stability. Cara seeks to help their students build a solid foundation for their future with self-knowledge, inner strength, and practical skills.

Chrysalis provides the resources and support necessary for homeless and low-income individuals to create a path of self-sufficiency. Their core curriculum is designed to improve job search skills, self-confidence, and employability. They provide transitional work experience for those with employment and skills gaps.

United Against Poverty seeks to help the chronically impoverished transform their lives by providing highly subsidized groceries, crisis care, and opportunities for education and employment. Clients can receive assistance to assess their emotional, financial, and educational needs.

Milwaukee Rescue Mission touches the lives of thousands of individuals every year by meeting basic needs and offering additional comprehensive services. In addition to housing, food, and a shower, Milwaukee Rescue Mission offers short-term and long-term assistance programs in areas of education, counseling, substance abuse, job training, and more.

These organizations are making a difference in the live of thousands by restoring dignity through work. If you’re interested in partnering with organizations like these, let us know! We’d love to connect you to these Catalysts and workforce development programs in our Spring cohort.