The recent jobs numbers for Massachusetts paint a paradox: The number of jobs created is up but the joblessness number remains the same. The cause for this is not a puzzle. The divide between available jobs and the people with skills to fill them has grown wider causing higher unemployment and more people living in poverty.
As a recent report released by the Crittenton Women’s Union shows, a single parent with two children needs an annual income of $65,880 in Massachusetts to meet their most basic needs. Today, it’s harder than ever for a person without a four-year degree to land a job that pays that amount much less build a career that provides a path to the middle class. That’s because the economy has changed and with it so have the types of jobs available. The jobs of 25 years ago, that required less education, paid a living wage, and paved the path to the middle class, don’t exist anymore.
This gap between jobs and skills is widening, causing the middle class to shrink as more people fall into poverty. This not only damages the lives of individuals and families, it has a profoundly negative effect on our economy.
Government bears the huge burden of providing shelter and other assistance to families living in poverty generation after generation. As more people remain unemployed, less taxes are paid, resulting in a huge loss of potential revenue. The private sector feels the impact as well. When there are not enough semi-skilled people available in the workforce, it takes longer to fill positions, which reduces productivity. Costs are driven up too when companies cannot find semi-skilled employees as people are either completely underqualified to do the work, or overqualified, demanding too much pay.
What is needed is a generational fix that will improve people’s lives and fuel our economy by moving people out of poverty while creating a stronger, skilled workforce that will make Massachusetts more competitive and encourage more economic development.
Having an accurate picture of the costs of living and knowing where the jobs are that require two years or less of higher education, pay a living wage, and are in high demand is a powerful first step. We can build on this information through a combination of education, support services, and career guidance that will help low-income people acquire the skills needed for these high demand jobs and transition into the workforce where they will contribute to businesses and the economy while enjoying the benefits of a middle class life.
To move from poverty to the middle class is not easy. It takes hard work, patience, and a dedication of resources to create a comprehensive support system for low-income people who want to achieve the American Dream just like anyone else.
As Massachusetts focuses on its community college system to create a stronger skilled workforce, there are measures we can undertake to help people better utilize education as a pathway into stable careers. College success counselors should be placed at all community colleges to assist low-income students graduate on time, and funding can be directed to helping students stay in school despite financial emergencies.
Massachusetts should join other states in allowing those receiving federal assistance to count two years of education towards their work requirement instead of one year as it is now. To strengthen this, we could add state-funded work-study opportunities that will help meet that mandated work requirement while providing the earnings and education needed to transition off of public assistance. The Massachusetts High Demand Scholarship program that prepares students for high demand occupations should be opened to those enrolled less than part-time because of situations like being a single parent.
The gap between poverty and the middle class is wide today, but we can work to close it. Building a bridge over that divide takes an investment of time and resources, but the return on investment is invaluable to our economy and those who want to contribute to it.
Elisabeth Babcock is the president & CEO of Crittenton Women’s Union. Susanne M. Cameron is senior vice president, and state director of Citi Community Development for Massachusetts.