Book review: Why don’t they just get a job? One couple’s mission to end poverty in their community

Why Don’t They Just Get A Job? One Couple’s Mission to End Poverty in Their Community

By Liane Phillips and Echo Montgomery Garrett

Aha! Process, Inc.


Here’s a poverty to prosperity solution that’s well worth a look if we’re serious about helping our lower city neighbours and making Hamilton the best place to raise a child.

Cincinnati Works is recognized as one of the leading poverty to work programs south of the border. It’s a nonprofit founded by a husband and wife team and focused on job retention and advancement for the unemployed and seemingly unemployable.  The award-winning program is heralded as a solution for both people living in poverty and for employers looking to hire qualified, entry level workers who can hit the ground running.

Liane and Dave Phillips founded Cincinnati Works back in 1994. Dave was retiring from a 32-year and 100 hour a week career with Arthur Andersen.  The Phillipses were looking for a way to work together, give back and make a difference. After their daughter-in-law sent over a newspaper story about Cleveland Works, the Phillipses paid a visit to C-Town and decided to launch a similar jobs program back in Cincinnati.

But first the Phillipses did their due diligence. They got a clear picture of the scope and severity of the poverty crisis in their hometown. According to the 1990 census, 186,000 adults and 175,000 children were living in poverty in Greater Cincinnati, for an overall poverty rate of 24 per cent. “Plenty of folks were in dire straits and needed help,” said Liane.

They looked at the local job market to see if there were any decent jobs for people looking to get out of poverty. The Phillipses talked with 200 local employers and discovered they had an immediate need to fill 1,200 vacant entry-level jobs that offered decent wages and health care benefits. Projected across the region, that worked out to 10,000 jobs waiting to be filled.  

The Phillipses finally looked at who was already helping folks find work in their community.  The Ohio Bureau of Employment had placed 3,000 people in the past year while 20 other organizations had put 4,222 people back to work. Yet there was no data that showed how many people got full-time jobs, what they were paid or how long they kept their jobs. There was clearly room for a well-run program that did a better job of tracking performance and measuring results.

And with that, the Phillipses launched Cincinnati Works. For $1,200 per person, Cincinnati Works delivers a one-week, 33-hour job readiness workshop followed with a lifetime of ongoing staff support to help clients find work, keep their jobs and get ahead at work.  To date, Cincinnati Works has helped more than 5,000 clients with an 80 per cent job retention rate after a year.

The Phillipses decided not to apply for government funding so they could stay responsive in meeting client needs. Just over 10 per cent of the funding comes from the United Way, 50 per cent comes from local companies and foundations and the remainder is donated by individuals who believe that investing $1,200 on a client in the program is better than spending $30,000 every year in social services for a person living in poverty.

So why don’t people living in poverty just get a job? Why do they need organizations like Cincinnati Works to lend a hand? According to the Phillipses, poor people are far from lazy. Every day’s a struggle that demands constant problem solving. Grinding poverty leaves you exhausted, overwhelmed and paralyzed by low self-esteem and a fear of failure. The Phillipses found that 60 per cent of Cincinnati Works clients were suffering from depression and many were self-medicating with drugs and alcohol.  

“On a good day, somebody with depression and anxiety can get a job. The problem is that they can’t keep the job,” says Liane. So along with teaching soft skills for getting a job, Cincinnati Works offers mental health services. And for the 50 per cent of clients with legal issues, the program partners with Legal Aid.

“Dave and I were single-minded about getting as close as we could to creating a one-stop safe haven where the poor could get the training and support they needed as individuals in order to tackle a plethora of barriers while getting a decent job with health benefits.”

This is a great book that offers a blueprint for replicating Cincinnati Works, including an overview of workshop curriculum. To their credit, the Phillipses talk about the false starts and missteps, the disappointments and heartbreaks.

And here’s the overriding message. Poverty isn’t a permanent condition and it can be eradicated one person, one job at a time.

“Poverty is a community problem. Eliminating it takes a community solution. You can make a difference. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you a problem is too big to tackle. It’s about helping our neighbours – one at a time and that is a powerful, beautiful thing.”


Published by

Jay Robb

I've reviewed more than 500 business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations since 1993.

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