Last spring, I joined with House Speaker Robert DeLeo in a visit to JVS’ classrooms to meet the clients who are getting jobs with the help of the Commonwealth’s Employment Services Program (ESP). As we sat in one classroom, student after student told their story of coming to this country, or losing a low-end job, facing innumerable barriers, and yet never wavering in their quest to achieve the American dream. Like me, the Speaker was visibly moved as he heard these moving stories of personal triumph over adversity. But, come July 1, these classrooms may very well be empty.
The ESP is the Commonwealth’s only “welfare-to-work” program, helping low-income individuals get off of public assistance, get employed, and paying taxes. In 2011, the ESP provided employment services to nearly 2,600 individuals state-wide. And ESP works. JVS places nearly 80% of its ESP clients in jobs. In most cases, the cost of ESP is recouped by the state in one year, as individuals stop drawing cash benefits and begin paying taxes. This is a “teach them to fish” program if there ever was one.
There are no equivalent services for ESP clients, and once they lose these services, the vast majority will stay on public assistance. Some have suggested that the clients will be able to use the services of the one-stop career centers to get jobs, but these are the most difficult to employ individuals in the state, with many barriers to employment. The career centers are under-staffed and are largely set-up for self-directed individuals who were recently unemployed. They cannot effectively help these clients get employed.
Governor Patrick’s budget eliminated ESP. The House budget added back about half of last year’s program funding, and the Senate budget, so far adds back about one-third. If the ESP program is eliminated, Massachusetts will be one of the few states in the country with no welfare-to-work program. And Massachusetts will face a real danger of a significant federal financial penalty, as federal welfare funding is contingent upon meeting job search and employment requirements, which it cannot meet without the program.
The state Senate will debate its budget amendments this week, including amendments on ESP. If you are convinced by my arguments, you might just want to pick up the phone.