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Journal Issue: The Next Generation of Antipoverty Policies Volume 17 Number 2 Fall 2007

Toward a Mandatory Work Policy for Men
Lawrence Mead

A Possible New Program

To sum up the discussion thus far: the nation faces a serious social problem because of low work levels among poor men, particularly blacks. This problem appears due partly to falling wages and other opportunity constraints, but principally to an oppositional culture and a breakdown of work discipline. The solution is partly to improve wages and skills, but more importantly to enforce work in available jobs. That suggests the same “help with hassle” approach as succeeded in welfare reform. Policymakers might adapt the child support and criminal justice systems to help enforce employment among men. Each system must both assist and require its clients to work. But experimental programs have not yet shown the clear effects on employment seen in welfare work programs.

Localities with serious poverty appear to need a mandatory work facility to which lowincome men could be referred if they persistently failed to work despite a work obligation. This includes low-skilled men in arrears on their child support and ex-offenders on parole who do not maintain employment.80 The program would be funded and run jointly by the local child support agency (or family court) and the parole system. A joint program should permit economies of scale because the clienteles overlap.

Men with unpaid child support judgments and parolees leaving prison would be told to get a job or pay up, as they are now. But if they did not, say, within sixty days, they would be remanded to a required work program where their efforts to work would be more closely supervised. There they would have to participate and get a private job within, say, sixty days, with subsequent employment verified. Failing that, they would be assigned to work crews on the CEO model, where again compliance would be verified.

Jobs would pay the regular wage (if private) or the minimum wage (if public). The program would deduct child support from the pay of men who owed it, but would also help them arrange offsetting public benefits, perhaps including enhanced wage subsidies. Men who failed to participate and work steadily would—unless there were good cause—be sent back to the child support or parole authorities to be imprisoned. But men who complied would be freed from the work program after a year or two. They would then revert to the looser supervision practiced by the regular child support and parole systems. If their employment record deteriorated, they could again be remanded to the work program.

The clientele for the proposed program could include the estimated 1 million child support defaulters (see above) plus prison parolees whose work problems are serious enough to warrant closer supervision. Because more than half of parolees quickly get jobs on leaving prison, but then tend to slack off on their work effort, the share of parolees with serious work problems is probably more than half. There were 784,000 parolees nationwide at the end of 2005.81 Assume 60 percent, or 470,000, have significant work problems. Thus, around 1.5 million cases might be subject to the new work program.82

America Works serves ex-offenders at a cost of $1,160 for each case placed in a job plus $2,088 for each placement that lasts at least ninety days. Seventy-eight percent of clients reached the first milestone, 44 percent of these the second (I omit the further payment for jobs lasting at least six months). Applying these figures to 1.5 million total cases yields a cost of about $2.4 billion a year. For the Center for Employment Opportunities to serve the same population would cost $3,219 per slot, after deducting revenues from expenses, or $4.8 billion annually.83 That figure—twice AW’s—reflects the higher cost of public employment programs.84 Both figures are conservative in that they assume no diversion effects. But if the new program were wellimplemented— a big if—it might cause some nonworking men to go to work voluntarily, thus reducing the population to be served. The precedent is welfare reform.