STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

How to get people off state assistance: "Just giving someone a job doesn't solve their problems."

In 1998, Amy Valderas was a single mom with three kids, all under the age of seven. She stayed at home. She had no work experience. She lived with her sister.

So she goes into a Department of Human Services office (which was at that time called the Family Independence Agency), to apply for cash assistance. And, in the lobby of the office, there’s a man who says he’s from Cascade Engineering, a manufacturing company in Grand Rapids.

He asks Valderas if she wants a job.  

"And I was very hesitant at first," she says. "Because I was always with my kids, and I was worried about transportation, daycare, all kinds of stuff, you know."

But the man is very convincing, and Valderas decides to try it out. Before long, she’s working 12 hour shifts. She’s working weekends. She thinks about quitting.

"Because the work is so difficult," she says. "I’d never worked before, and then the long hours. So, I didn’t think I’d be here."

On top of that, she had car troubles. And she hadn’t saved up enough money to make repairs.

To understand how Valderas made it through those challenges, and how she’s still here at Cascade Engineering after 14 years, you have to know a little bit about the company, and what was going on there in the late 1990s.

At the time, the economy was good. It was hard to find entry-level workers. Executives at Cascade decided they could find a new talent pool, and help the community, if they offered jobs to people who were living on assistance.

Kelly Losey was part of the human resources staff at Cascade at the time, and she says initially, executives at the company got a bus, and sent it to a homeless shelter to pick up anyone who wanted to work. The bus made its first trip on a Monday

"By Friday, the bus went to pick up the people to come to work, there was no one there to come," Losey says.

The plan was an immediate and complete failure. A bus ride was not enough to help people turn their lives around.

Then the company tried another idea, which also failed.

But, instead of blaming the workers, executives at Cascade Engineering looked at themselves, and what they were doing wrong.

"This whole great idea of hiring people out of poverty, and thinking it’s just going to work without preparing the organization as well, was kind of ... one of those lessons learned,” Losey says.

The next step was to realize that something else had to happen for the workers, after they were hired.   

That’s where Joyce Gutierrez came in.

"Just giving someone a job doesn’t solve their problems, there’s other things going on," she says.

Gutierrez is a state case manager for the Department of Human Services. In the late 1990s, DHS agreed to a partnership with Cascade. The company would cover part of Gutierrez’s salary. In exchange, she could work on site at Cascade to help people transition off assistance and into a job. It was the first time this had ever been done in Michigan.

"And once I came on-site and started doing this work, I felt like I was really making a difference in people’s lives," Gutierrez says. "I have clients that have been at Cascade Engineering since 1999, and some of them are totally off assistance."

By being on site, Gutierrez is more available to her clients. She can help them immediately. It’s dramatically reduced employee turnover, and allowed more people to move off of assistance.  

About 12 hundred people have gone through the program, and Kelly Losey says the model has been replicated eight times.

But there is a downside to the model. Gutierrez spends more time with each of her clients, and she has fewer clients than most other case workers. That means, if the state wanted to expand this model in a big way, officials would have to hire more case workers to handle fewer clients.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story referred to Joyce Gutierrez as a "social worker." She is a case manager. 

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.
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