A Community Responds to Need (or Good News You’ll Never See in Mainstream Media)

A Community Responds to Need (or Good News You’ll Never See in Mainstream Media)


A Community Responds to Need (or Good News You’ll Never See in Mainstream Media)




By Eric Cochling


Just seven months in and it’s fair to say that 2020 has been one of the most disastrous years in modern American history. The very fabric of our country seems to be unravelling before our eyes. As a year that can’t avoid being remembered in infamy, 2020 will forever be known for its pandemic, mass unemployment, police shootings, riots, and autonomous zones. For many of us born after the tumultuous 1960s, this is the first time we’ve seen our country in so much real, existential trouble. 


Despite all the terrible things that have happened, and despite a media establishment that seems all in on an “if it bleeds, it leads” approach, you don’t have to look too far to find reasons to be hopeful. Granted, you do have to look in different places to find the good news—you’re unlikely to see it in news broadcasts or social media where anger and outrage are the fuel.


Instead, you have to read a local paper or sign up for newsletters and blogs (like this one) from ministries and nonprofits that you know. If you do, what you will find is that many Americans—and you’re likely one—are quietly at work responding to community needs and finding ways to bring people together. 


In fact, many more of us are responding in this way than participating in riots or joining Twitter mobs. But because it’s the good, right, and (dare I say) expected response, it’s relegated to the “human interest” section of the paper, the end of the news broadcast, and the unpromoted backwaters of social media where virtually no one goes. At GCO, we are privileged to be working with community partners in just one of those efforts to respond to need. 


Leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, church, nonprofit, and community leaders in my hometown of Lawrenceville were already discussing ways we could partner to become better neighbors to those in poorer sections of the city. Unaware of what was coming, we prayed for guidance and started making initial plans for how best to work together. When COVID-19 struck and our state began shutting down, our group coalesced around a plan to serve those families living in extended stay hotels or rental properties in Lawrenceville who were on the verge of eviction. These were the families on the financial bubble pre-COVID and would be the first to be harmed as businesses shuttered. With funding from private philanthropy and the City of Lawrenceville, the Lawrenceville Response Center (LRC) was born. 


Through the partner organizations working through the LRC (organized and led by Impact46), our groups have provided case management (Village of Hope and St. Vincent de Paul), housing stability (the Lawrenceville Housing Authority), food security (the Lawrenceville Cooperative Ministry), mentoring and coaching (Lawrenceville Employee Assistance Program at First UMC Lawrenceville), and job search assistance (GCO’s Hiring Well, Doing Good program). To date, the LRC has helped more than 200 families avoid eviction, have sufficient nutrition, and get on the path back to a stable income.


It’s the biggest good news story in my community, but almost no one knows about it. It’s a story of people (with diversity of race, gender, income, political views, and faith) coming together to help alleviate and prevent suffering. As we enter into our third month of working together, we celebrate the successes we’ve seen:


  • The mom and daughter who now have a place of their own after spending many nights living in their car.
  • The couple who were unemployed and living under a bridge who are now in decent housing and working.
  • The mom and her two children who have been able to remain in an extended stay hotel while mom successfully found a new job.


There are other stories like this and there will be more. And our experience in Lawrenceville is certainly being replicated in other cities and states around the country. Even though you’ll almost never hear it from a 24-hour news channel or see it in your Twitter feed, this is how the vast majority of Americans respond in a crisis: They roll up their sleeves and help.


HWDG brings together community resources and technology to help un- and under-employed individuals achieve economic independence in three ways:


  • Offering support: Individuals can easily search for local service providers who can help them overcome barriers to employment.
  • Helping people find their strengths: Job seekers can identify their strengths and opportunities for employment through a soft skills assessment, a library of training programs, and a career pathway generator.
  • Linking people directly with job opportunities: Job seekers can then connect with jobs relevant to their skill sets and personal preferences and geographic area.


Visit www.hiiringwelldoinggood.com

Ready to work, right out of high school

Ready to work, right out of high school

Georgia’s public-school teachers should be proud of the work they’ve done to raise graduation rates in our state. Since 2011, graduation rates have increased by more than 14 percent, with 81.6 percent of the class of 2018 graduating. It’s an improvement that has moved Georgia, mercifully, out of the bottom tier of states. This is no small achievement and marks a dramatic improvement in the opportunities and prospects for the students who would not have graduated otherwise.

But graduating high school is not enough to ensure that our students succeed as they launch into the critical first years of their adult life. While college attendance is an important next step for many Georgia students, it’s not the route that most take.

According to a recent study from the University of Pennsylvania, only 31 percent of 18-24-year-olds in Georgia are in college. Of those who do attend college, completion isn’t guaranteed. According to research from the Georgia Governor’s Office for Student Achievement, only 27 percent of the class of 2012 (the most recent year available) had a bachelor’s degree, associate’s degree, or certificate five years after graduating from high school.

And then there’s the large number of young adults in the state who are still trying to find their way years after high school. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, in 2017 Georgia had 123,000 young adults aged 20-24 who were neither in school nor working. That’s nearly one in five people in that age group.

So, if nearly 70 percent of students are not going to college and a very high percentage are still floundering into their early 20s, what’s the solution for helping them find a path to a rewarding, self-supporting career?

An important answer, according to Dr. Robert Lerman of the Urban Institute, is apprenticeships—where students start working while high school juniors and seniors in fields that lead to credentials and, importantly, careers immediately after graduation. Dr. Lerman’s work researching apprenticeships spans decades and covers most of the globe. His research has shown that apprenticing is one of (if not the most) effective way to ensure that students who are not college bound find their way into a well-paying, sustainable career.

In the last two years, GCO has worked with Dr. Lerman to research the role of apprenticeships in Georgia and to provide recommendations on how to expand an already well-structured program into one that meets student demand.

Dr. Lerman’s most recent report, released just this week, focuses on Georgia’s Youth Apprenticeship program, created in the mid 1990s with fewer than 400 student participants. Today, the program has grown to more than 3,000 students in nearly 350 schools across the state. State funding of the program is relatively modest at $3 million annually and mostly funds program coordinators who oversee student participation and work to attract businesses to offer apprenticeship opportunities.

According to the report, demand for apprenticeships of this kind is high in Georgia. Dr. Lerman has estimated elsewhere that Georgia needs nearly 100,000 apprenticeships in order to meet that demand. Why hasn’t apprenticeship availability kept pace with student demand, according to Dr. Lerman? Based on interviews and surveys of program coordinators, the primary answer is that companies are skittish to offer jobs to high school students. This is due to the fear of liability for such young workers and related costs.

But, according to Dr. Lerman, these fears are largely unfounded and based on inaccurate assumptions about what the law requires and the cost of hiring younger workers. He cites Southwire as a prime example of a company that has successfully embraced apprenticeships since the 1990s and now employs more than 300 students. And Southwire has intentionally sought out students who are known to be at risk of falling into poverty and suffering from related issues, complexities not faced by the majority of students who would seek apprenticeship opportunities.

For the companies that are currently providing apprenticeships, Dr. Lerman points to regular reports of high levels of satisfaction (more than 90 percent) as a reason to be optimistic that, with accurate information and an opportunity to participate, more companies can be convinced to join the effort.

And, at GCO, we believe now is the perfect time to expand apprenticeships in Georgia. As the chart below demonstrates, the job market is tight in a way that hasn’t been seen for nearly two decades, with more job openings than job seekers. Surely now is the time to scale up apprenticeships to create a pathway from high school to work for those hundreds of thousands of students and young adults in our state who are not college-bound but are full of potential and have great things to offer to any company willing to take a chance on them. We owe it to them to make it happen.   

GCO advice on increasing employment gets hearing in D.C.

GCO advice on increasing employment gets hearing in D.C.

In the post below, Executive Vice President Eric Cochling talks about a recent visit with leaders in Washington D.C. and how GCO’s work is being noticed on Capitol Hill. 

I have to admit that last week was a tiring whirlwind of activity, but it turned out to be a wonderful opportunity to inform and influence federal policy.

I spent most of last week in Washington, DC taking part in meetings with the Department of Labor, the Office of Management and Budget, the Federal Trade Commission, various House and Senate offices, and the domestic policy staff of the White House.

Each meeting was focused on the need to get more American’s back to work and the way state organizations, like GCO, are working to make that goal a reality. Of particular interest was what the federal government can and should do to help states remove barriers to employment.

I was able to present to the leaders in the various offices on the research and community-based work that GCO is doing to address joblessness.

The topics we discussed included:

  • How states, with the federal governments encouragement, can expand apprenticeship opportunities for high school students who are not college-bound and need a pipeline into work,
  • Welfare reforms that will move people to self-sufficiency, including simplifying the system, requiring and incentivizing work across all programs, and removing disincentives to family formation,
  • Ways to remove systemic barriers to employment found in state laws, including those that needlessly restrict vocational licensing and access to driver’s licenses,
  • Local initiatives, like GCO’s Hiring Well, Doing Good, that are designed to help reinvigorate the local, community-based response to helping people find work.

While politics are more polarized than I’ve witnessed in my lifetime, I was heartened by what appeared to be genuine interest in practical ways to help reinvigorate local, civil society answers to unemployment.

I was also encouraged by a consistent message that the federal government is looking to states to solve problems like this and are actively working – via welfare reform and other policy changes – to give back to the states the authority to tackle these problems effectively.

It is time for state leaders to prepare themselves to take on these tough issues and GCO stands ready to help.

It’s the End of Session, Will Legislators Help Struggling Students?

It’s the End of Session, Will Legislators Help Struggling Students?

A large majority of Georgians support expanding school choice in the state, including more than 80 percent of African-Americans and Latinos. The numbers are astounding, and for good reasons.

Georgia’s students continue to struggle in national measures of academic achievement, and the school choice options that currently do exist—like the tax credit scholarship program—are capped at such low levels that there are constantly long waiting lists.

Since it was first passed in 2008, the tax credit program has given tens of thousands of students the opportunity for a brighter future at a private school, but it has never served all the students who have applied for a scholarship. To do that, the program needs to grow.

First, a bit of background. Georgia’s tax-credit law allows private citizens and corporations to receive tax credits for donations to nonprofit Student Scholarship Organizations (SSOs), which then administer scholarships across the state on behalf of needy kids. In 2015 alone, over 13,500 students received scholarships.

The state House recently approved HB 217, which would raise the program’s current cap from $58 million to $100 million in a graduated course of six years, effectively doubling its size. But the Senate removed the slow and steady growth in the program in favor of a one-time increase in the cap to $65 million, hardly meeting current demand.  Furthermore, the Senate version of the bill included an extreme cut to the administrative allowance available to the non-profit student scholarship organizations administering the program, which would effectively push smaller organizations out of the market.

Some lawmakers claim that SSOs spend too much on administrative overhead, including activities like fundraising, marketing, and government compliance. Currently, SSOs are limited to keeping a specific percentage of their total proceeds for administration, depending on how much they take in: 10 percent for the first $1.5 million raised, 7 percent for amounts between $1.5 million and $10 million, 6 percent for amounts between $10 million and $20 million, and 5 percent for amounts over $20 million.

This sliding scale acknowledges that as SSOs are able to raise more money, they don’t need to devote as large a percentage of their budgets to overhead. It also recognizes that smaller or start-up organizations still need a slightly higher percentage to be effective and comply with the law.

The Senate substitute to HB 217, backed by Lt. Governor Cagle and Senate leadership, eliminates the graduated administrative allowance in favor of an across-the-board cap of 3 percent. Importantly, most SSOs in Georgia don’t raise enough money to even afford full-time staff under the 10 percent administrative allowance, let alone a 3 percent cap. These organizations would be most harmed by the Senate change, while the largest SSOs would be least affected by the 3 percent cap due to their bigger budgets.

What’s the result? Small SSOs would be pushed out of the market in favor of a handful of large organizations.

Here’s what this scenario would look like in reality: Four SSOs raised less than $100,000 in 2015 and awarded scholarships to 308 students, almost half of whom come from families making less than $30,000 a year. The proposed change would immediately hamstring these organizations by limiting them to less than $3,000 a year for administration, forcing them to close their doors and returning 308 students back to schools that were not serving their needs.

Is that a result we want?

Aside from claims of administrative bloat, supporters of the Senate substitute bill make two more arguments: First, that SSOs should be brought more in line with other nonprofits in Georgia. And second, that the tax credits law should more closely mirror Florida’s program, which caps administrative allowances at 3 percent.

Both claims don’t stand up to even basic scrutiny. In the first place, of Charity Navigator’s 68 top-rated charities in Georgia, only one operates on less than 3 percent of funds for administration—and that organization has total revenues of more than $547 million. So it’s false to claim the proposed 3 percent cap would bring SSOs more in line with other nonprofits.

Secondly, looking at Florida’s law is like comparing apples and oranges. The Sunshine State only has two nonprofit scholarship granting organizations, only allows corporate donations, and has a total program cap of $500 million compared to Georgia, which has more than 20 active SSOs and a statewide a cap of $58 million.

In the end, if the Senate truly wants to bring Georgia more in line with Florida, lawmakers would be better served to raise the statewide program cap to match Florida’s rather than reduce the overhead allowance. If they did, the program would provide school choice to nearly 130,000 students and propel Georgia into the leadership position among states providing families with real options.

With only one day remaining in the legislative session, we hope the Senate and House can come together to agree on a bill that restores growth in the program and hope for thousands of desperate students and families.

Choosing Between Family or Welfare Benefits

Choosing Between Family or Welfare Benefits

We know that to avoid poverty, it is essential to get a high school diploma, maintain a steady job, and marry before having children (see research from the Brookings Institution and Harvard University on these points). Not only are they key to avoiding poverty, upward mobility and financial stability are closely tied to this family-education-work sequence, as well.

That is why our recent reports are so disturbing. They show that most of our welfare programs are systematically undermining two of the three keys to avoiding poverty and are doing so for some of the most vulnerable groups in our society.

In the first paper, Disincentives for Work and Marriage in Georgia’s Welfare System, we show that many of our welfare programs – alone or when combined –actually penalize earning more and create dramatic “welfare cliffs”.

For many parents on public assistance, receiving a raise or working longer hours can result in dramatic reductions in welfare benefits, often completely erasing what they gain by working more or receiving a raise. Even worse, there are times when earning more money through additional work or a pay raise can result in less income to the family because government benefits are reduced so much all at one time.

When families find themselves in this position, they are effectively locked into dependency, unable to work themselves into self-sufficiency without having to endure sometimes long, crippling periods of financial hardship.

To make matters worse, a similar set of perverse incentives exist when a parent on welfare decides to marry.

For many moms on public assistance for example, deciding to marry a boyfriend or the father of their children can mean that family income is dramatically reduced due to an immediate and steep loss of benefits. In many cases, the disincentives to marriage only go away if the potential husband is earning much more money than would be expected or likely under the circumstances. The result is that these moms must choose between forming a family (and the financial and relational stability it can bring in the long-term) or the short-term financial health of their families.

For a parent in this position, it is easy to see why many would simply choose to stay single and cohabit rather than marry. Unfortunately, research also shows that cohabiting couples struggle with relational instability in ways that married couples do not, so the welfare system ends up encouraging people to enter into relationships that are less likely to last and less likely to provide the stability that would allow them to escape poverty.

While the welfare system was not intentionally designed to work this way, it is unjust nonetheless. If it worked as it should, the system would encourage work and family formation at every turn – as the surest antidotes to poverty.

That is why in our next report, we will be setting out a suggested set of reforms that the state and federal governments can adopt to reform the system in a way that creates a sustainable safety-net that encourages the behaviors that we know are needed for individuals and families to escape and stay out of poverty. We will also be providing a plan for a how a state can implement these reforms on the ground if it chooses to take on reforming the system.

If you want to see how the welfare cliff works for different family types and in each of Georgia’s 159 counties, visit www.welfarecliff.org.