Former President Bill Clinton once said, "The best social program is a good job."
Memphis City Council member Lee Harris agrees and says employment is the best way to move the community forward. That's why Harris recently proposed the "Discouraged Worker Opportunity Ordinance," which would require any firm that enters construction contracts with the city to set aside 10 percent of its funding for hiring disadvantaged workers.
- Lee Harris
The ordinance is primarily aimed to benefit people with felony convictions, people who reside in low-income households, and individuals who have been unemployed for a long period of time.
"If we're going to do something to respond to some of these vast challenges in the city, it's got to be aggressive and innovative," Harris said. "No more incentives. No more of these aspirational goals. Just a hardcore requirement that any time you get a contract with the city of Memphis, you, as the recipient, make a promise that you're going to spend 10 percent of those contract dollars to hire folks from our hardest-hit populations."
Those with felony records would potentially benefit the most from the ordinance since they typically face more challenges obtaining employment than the average citizen. According to a survey by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, "employers said that they would be more likely to hire welfare recipients, workers with little recent work experience, or lengthy unemployment over applicants with criminal records."
DeAndre Brown knows firsthand how difficult it can be to find a job. Brown was sentenced to 13 years in prison for bank fraud and identity theft but was released after 25 months. Upon his release, he applied to everything from fast food restaurants to grocery stores but was never hired.
"It was impossible for me to find employment," Brown said. "Every time I put an application in, I was always denied simply because I had a conviction. The answer was, 'We don't hire convicted felons.' It was so difficult for me that I decided to start a program."
Brown founded Lifeline To Success, an organization that provides resources to help ex-offenders readjust to society. Brown is also supporting Harris' ordinance with the hope that it will help change the perception of felons by others and increase their employment opportunities.
During Harris' presentation to the council this week, Brown brought a handful of unemployed ex-offenders to share their stories and express the burdens they face finding jobs.
The city's impoverished and long-term unemployed would also enjoy benefits if the ordinance passes. For 2011, the U.S. Census revealed that 19 percent of people residing in metropolitan Memphis were impoverished. And according to a report by Sabér Research, Memphis has a 43 percent unemployment rate for individuals who have been jobless for 52 weeks or longer. This is the highest long-term unemployment rate in the nation.
"Hopefully, this ordinance provides [people with] more opportunities for work and a way to meaningfully take care of their family," Harris said. "That's what people want, and that's all this ordinance promises."
Harris said people who have been through city-endorsed job-training programs but are unemployed would also qualify to benefit from the ordinance. He said the next steps include a 60-day public input phase. The ordinance should come back before the council next year.
If passed, the ordinance would operate over the 2015-2017 fiscal years. After the three-year period ends, the city council would have the opportunity to decide whether or not to reauthorize the ordinance.