War-On-Poverty Debate Largely Ignores Employer Role

01/15/2014 04:18 pm ET Updated Mar 17, 2014

January marks the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty and it is natural to take stock -- how successful have we been in combatting poverty, where do we need to go, how will we get there and most importantly, what are the most effective engines of change?

When it comes to these engines for change, there is typically an either/or view -- the government or the individual.

In a recent page one assessment of the war on poverty 50 years later, New York Times reporter Annie Lowrey focused on the effectiveness of antipoverty program like Earned Income Tax Credits, unemployment insurance, the minimum wage, Medicaid, Food Stamps, and other government initiatives, in reducing poverty or at least in keeping it at bay.

Taking the view of individual responsibility was Ron Haskins of the Brookings Institution in a Yahoo! Finance opinion piece on the War on Poverty, calling government help "minimally effective." "To mount an effective war against poverty," he adds, "we need changes in the personal decisions of more young Americans."

Where is the workplace in these either/or analyses?

When it is included, the private sector -- the economy -- is seen as locus of economic growth, providing jobs for low-income employee but the workplace itself is not depicted as an important player in reducing poverty. It is clear to me, from years of research on the low-income workforce that all four -- governmental programs, the individual, the economy and the workplace -- have to be seen as change engines.

It is the coworkers and supervisors who create an atmosphere of trust and respect in the workplace where low-income employees can prosper. It is the supervisors who provide specific help for low-income employees in succeeding on their job and who offer job assignments and training that enable low-income employees to learn, stretch and advance. It is the workplace policies or programs that enable low-income employees the flexibility to continue in school as well as to care for their families. It is the adequacy of employer-provided benefits.

Families and Work Institute's National Study of the Changing Workforce investigated the aspects of the workplace that make a difference. They are:

• Adequate benefits
• Job autonomy
• Learning opportunities and challenges
• Supervisor support for job success
• Supervisor support for meeting personal and family needs
• Culture of respect and trust
• Workplace flexibility

These factors -- what we call an Effective Workplace -- may be largely absent from the broader discussions on the war of poverty but that's a big mistake. Most are no cost, except for benefits; most can be easily implemented; and most help employers and employees alike in powerful ways. For example, they reduce the likelihood of stress and poorer health and increase the likelihood of job satisfaction, engagement, and retention -- key issues when it comes to the low-income workforce.

An unusual exception to the exclusion of the workplace is The Shriver Report: A Woman's Nation Pushes Back from the Brink. Just released in honor of Maria Shriver's late father, Sargent Shriver, and his critical role as the architect of President Johnson's War on Poverty, this report contains an entire section of the report titled "Private Solutions."

In a chapter my colleagues James T. Bond and Eve Tahmincioglu and I co-authored in the report, "What if Employers Put Women at the Center of Their Workplace Policies," you meet Stacey Jones. She has a good, steady job now as a receptionist for an investment firm. But her life wasn't always like this. At 20, she was a single mother doing everything she could to stay in technical school.

Along the way, Stacey had many of the problems that low-income women face. While at this technical school, she was put on academic probation because she wasn't prepared to be a student and she lacked time management skills. When she managed to finish, she held a series of jobs where she did have health insurance, but her son wasn't covered so she couldn't get him immunized. She had to settle for upsettingly bad child care. She had to take six busses to and from work. She then ended up in a difficult marriage with high levels of stress, where she self medicated.

According to the Families and Work Institute's research, Stacey exemplifies the average low-income individual, who is:

• More likely to be younger--63 percent are under 34 years old versus 14 percent of the high-income workforce.

• More likely to be female--55 percent are female versus 46 percent of the high-income workforce.

• Less well educated--Only 36 percent have any postsecondary education, and only 9 percent have a college or higher degree, compared with 82 percent of the high-income workforce--though low-income employees are more likely to be currently enrolled in school or training (28 percent versus 19 percent).

• Less likely to be married or living with a partner--36 percent are married or living with a partner compared with 87 percent of the high-income workforce.

• More likely to have children--51 percent have children under 18 versus 33 percent of the high-income workforce, and 18 percent have children under 3 compared to 5 percent of the high-income workforce. Among the 62 percent of low-income employed women with families (that is, they have a spouse/partner and/or children who live with them), 85 percent contribute 50 percent or more of family income and 69 percent contribute 100 percent

• In poorer health: Despite their generally younger age, 27 percent of the low-income workforce report poor or fair health versus only 15 percent of the high-income workforce.

• Experiencing higher stress: More than three times as many low-income employees experience high levels of stress (38 percent) as high-income employees (12 percent). Only 14 percent of low-income employees have low levels.

• In poorer mental health overall: According to a general measure of mental health, 40 percent of low-income employees rank in the poor category, more than twice the percentage of high-income employees (17 percent).

What helped Stacey?

It was one supervisor who pushed her to further her education. It was another supervisor who understood the realities of her life as a low-income woman--who understood that she couldn't afford to get her car fixed, for example and saw that she had talent. It was flexibility her workplace offered so she could attend parent-teacher conferences and who helped her go to college.

In May 2013, Stacey graduated from college with a bachelor of science degree in mental health and counseling. It took her 20 years to reach this milestone. She said, "Just the exposure to educated people changes your life. My goal is applying to graduate school now. I will!"

Stacey is no longer on the brink:

"I know how to make healthy choices in regard to relationships with men and people in general. I do not self-medicate any longer, and I have tools and skills that I can use at any time," she said, adding that she now makes about $50,000 a year and is not receiving any public assistance.

She said: "I was a low-income employee--it was in the past!"

Rising above poverty take a lot--government programs, individual determination, available jobs and it takes Effective Workplaces!

Just as we ignore the role of the workplace as a player in reducing poverty, we also tend to focus on abusive workplaces for low-income workforce. To be sure, those are important stories. But we should also focus and reward those that are good. Perhaps surprisingly, these Effective Workplace are everywhere! For a list, go to this link.