Teenagers who grow up in public housing are, by definition, denied exposure within their own communities to economically successful role models. With notable exceptions, they tend to repeat the life patterns of the poor, disenfranchised adults in their immediate environments.
But, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, thirteen-year-olds living in public housing are learning what it takes to get and keep jobs at law firms, universities and other major employers. Within the next few years, through the Work Force Unemployment Prevention Program (Work Force), they will have paying jobs in these workplaces.
Work Force is the Cambridge Housing Authority's unemployment prevention program for very low income, teenage, in-school residents of public housing. It is an early intervention program which seeks to break the generational cycle of poverty and dependency prevalent in public housing communities.
Programs to help teenagers break out of poverty and escape the culture of the streets are not unique. However, most are found in schools and nonprofit organizations. Work Force operates out of the public housing projects where clients live, allowing staff to achieve an exceptional level of accessibility, intimacy, and credibility with their clientele. In order to deal with the whole child, and not merely his or her vocational interest, Work Force staff are ubiquitous in participants' lives. They form bonds with key people in teenagers' lives, creating a "conspiracy of nurturing" that goes beyond the bounds of traditional employment programming.
Work Force enrolls young people as early as age thirteen, far younger than conventional employment efforts. The program offers a sequence of highly structured, paid classroom and "try-out" employment experiences in conjunction with counseling services and supports for academic success. Through the development of skills in decision-making, conflict resolution, goal-setting, communication, values clarification, and money management in classroom settings situated in public housing developments, youth are gradually prepared to leave the comparative safety of their own communities and venture into the world of work.
The program has operated at full capacity and served more than 100 students annually since 1985. Eighty percent of the Work Force teenagers placed with 110 employers have received favorable employer evaluations. A 1988 study of the program conducted by Brandeis University found that youth who completed or left the program showed employment rates to be "considerably higher than the rates found for low-income and minority youth in the United States" and "only slightly lower than the average for all American high school students."
The Work Force Unemployment Prevention Program gives children of historically unemployed and underemployed adults choices their parents did not have. By building young people's self-esteem, increasing their chances of succeeding in school, developing their basic life skills, and exposing them to a wide variety of occupational settings, Work Force gives youth the tools they need to achieve economic mobility.