An initial analysis of the Put Illinois To Work program reveals that more than 27,000 Illinoisians have worked for 4,280 employers in 71 counties across the state. Funding for the program will dry up at the end of November, meaning job cuts for thousands. Is this the right move with the state's unemployment rate still so high?
During the Great Depression, temporary federal job programs provided relief for millions of Americans thrown into the lurch by the deepest economic decline of the 20th Century. The Civilian Conservation Corps hired the unemployed to build roads, parks, bridges, and other infrastructure projects. Writers, painters, and playwrights plied their craft through the Works Progress Administration, and other WPA workers built many public structures.
Federal employment efforts meant to address the displacement caused by the Great Recession have been smaller in scale. But that doesn't mean they haven't had an impact, at least in Illinois. An initial analysis of the Put Illinois To Work (PITW) jobs program demonstrates how using federal (and later state) funds to push against a dismal employment situation have provided jobs and benefits to low-income people across the state. The Heartland Alliance, which is administering the program in partnership with the state's Department of Human Services, released a first round of data about the program yesterday.
PITW, and other programs around the country like it, were made possible through a $5 billion fund Congress included in the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, also known as the stimulus bill. The fund paid for 80 percent of job programs like PITW, with states or private entities making up the remainder, and Illinois moved aggressively to take advantage of the opportunity. The state aimed high, in fact -- more adults have been placed in a job here than any other state in the country. Between approximately April and September, over 27,000 Illinoisans have worked for 4,280 employers earning $107 million in wages in $10-per-hour job, Heartland says.
Most of that wage total -- more than $84 million -- went to employees in Cook County. But the wages also fell to workers in the collar counties ($759,820 in DuPage, $1.3 million in Will) and downstate ($670,569 in Champaign County, $109,160 in Randolph County). In all, workers in 71 Illinois counties earned PITW wages. Here's a county-by-county breakdown of the wages paid out by PITW from the Heartland report:
The PITW workers, according to Heartland, are 60 percent female, mostly under the age of 30, and had been, on average, unemployed for more than 15 months before signing up with PITW. Many have extremely little money. Thirty-two percent reported having no household income in the month before they started the program, and their overall average monthly income was a mere $710, or $8,250 annually.
Each two-week pay cycle saw the PITW workers paying over $1.1 million in federal income, Medicare, and Social Security taxes, and another $226,000 in state income taxes. All of the wage and tax data comes from a central database tracking PITW and the payroll records Heartland maintains for each participating worker.
For PITW participants, the program has proven to be a positive experience in the vast majority of cases. According to a survey Heartland conducted, 92 percent of workers and 88 percent of the program's employers -- including business, non-profits, and public sector agencies -- said they would participate in a PITW-style program again. Fifty-two percent of the employers said they would hire at least half of all their PITW workers if they were able to do so. But just 13 percent said they were in that position, an indication of ongoing weakness in the economy. Employer Paula Mitchell lauded PITW at a rally earlier this fall:
In their report, Heartland concluded that the stimulus bill's provisions allowing for programs like PITW provided states the chance to make smart, targeted responses to the jobless aftermath of the Great Recession:
By raising the employment levels of people with low incomes, subsidized employment programs place stimulus dollars directly in the hands of those most likely to spend money in their communities immediately, thereby maximizing the impact of [stimulus] funds. By lowering the cost of hiring, these programs also encourage businesses that had put off planned expansions or delayed hiring to move ahead with their expansion plans or replace diminished workforces.
But despite the apparent success of PITW, the program has run into the buzzsaw of election year politics and Republican opposition on Capitol Hill.
Federal funds were set to expire for the PITW participants on September 30. Two days prior to that date, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin proposed an extension for the TANF jobs fund, but the move was blocked by Sen. Mike Enzi, a Republican from Wyoming. (The GOP had also blocked an attempt to provide an additional $1.3 billion for the program back in March. An extension had passed the House.) Then, on September 30, Gov. Pat Quinn allocated an additional $75 million in state money to keep PITW going through the end of November.
It was a controversial decision. Quinn caught heat about the allocation from Bill Brady, his Republican rival for the gubernatorial seat. Other observers linked the expenditure to Quinn's re-election effort, and PITW workers have indeed lauded the program during at least one of his rallies. And there is no doubt that social service providers and vendors owed money from the State of Illinois desperately could have used those dollars to shore up their operations.
Quinn's move, if inelegant, should be understood in the context of the broader unemployment crisis. Congress, through the stimulus bill, provided tremendous incentives for states to start subsidized job programs. So the states -- 37 of them -- did. Now, with unemployment still high across the U.S., many states are informing hundreds of thousands of long-unemployed people that they are out of a job once again because a relatively low-cost "win-win-win" program (for unemployed workers, businesses, and local economies) is flat broke.
In Illinois, that deadline will come at the end of next month, barring a radical departure from Senate Republicans or an influx of additional money from the State of Illinois, which is deep in debt.
Will Congress step up to the plate? Recall that the WPA lasted from 1935 to 1943. The Civilian Conservation Corp lasted for nine years. The Put Illinois To Work program is set to last from April 10 to November 30 -- six months and change.