The challenges Dyvontrae Johnson and Jonathan Gonzalez face in the search for new skills and stable, good-paying jobs in San Antonio tell a larger story of why expensive government programs to retrain unemployed and underemployed adults so often fall short.

Both men lost or left low-wage jobs in the past two years as the pandemic disrupted the economy, and now hope a job training program can elevate them out of San Antonio’s low-wage economy.

San Antonio voters offered overwhelming support in November 2020 for a ballot initiative that will dedicate a 1/8 cent sales tax for the next four and half years to fund an ambitious $200 million job training program, SA Ready to Work. Mayor Ron Nirenberg has set a highly aspirational goal of retraining and employing 40,000 San Antonians who now earn less than $32,000 a year or are out of work.

It’s an unprecedented effort by any U.S. city to directly fund third-party job training programs that aim to connect low-wage workers with new skills and good jobs with local employers. Still, even $200 million may prove inadequate to provide all the wraparound services that adults living in poverty require to enroll in and complete such programs.

If you missed Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick’s excellent Dec. 31 article that focuses on the respective experiences of Johnson and Gonzalez, read it now and then return to this column as I explore why a noble anti-poverty initiative faces so many obstacles in its bid to lift that many working adults out of poverty.

Johnson, a 31-year-old father of two children who live with him full time, is fearful of eviction as he works to earn a certification in information technology through Train for Jobs SA, a predecessor program to SA Ready to Work launched by the city last year in partnership with the Alamo Colleges.

The program’s goal was to place 10,000 trainees into new, higher-wage jobs. As of mid-December, more than 9,500 people have completed preliminary intake for the program and 4,433 are currently in training. Of those who have graduated, 929 are looking for work and 888 have found jobs. While the program’s final outcome will not be known for at least another calendar year, the bottom line results to date illustrate how difficult it is to get people through such programs and into meaningful employment.

The weekly $360 stipend Johnson is paid in the program is less than the $450 maximum he understood he would be paid. And, he later learned, no stipend was paid for his first three weeks in the program while administrators enrolled him in the system. Imagine a private-sector employer telling a new employee their first three weeks of work would go uncompensated while their paperwork was processed.

Johnson continues to fall behind on his monthly rent and has no disposable income, a painful reality as he parented two young children through the holidays.

While Johnson will finish the course in March, he now regrets not taking a job laying fiber optic cable that he turned down to enroll in the IT course. He wonders if voters who approved the tax-supported SA Ready to Work program realize it won’t pay weekly stipends to enrollees.

“People voted with confidence that a bunch of people with money and suits were going to come and actually, really give a crap about people like me,” Johnson told Dimmick, referring to the November 2020 election when voters overwhelmingly approved the sales tax for Ready to Work. “Here I am about to potentially be out of a home.”

Jonathan Gonzalez, 26, is enrolled in the same IT course as Johnson. His circumstances, though, are more promising. He works part time for a landscaping company and lives at home with his father. Not facing the kind of pressures weighing on Johnson, he sounds a more optimistic note.

“I don’t have any huge bills,” Gonzalez told Dimmick. “I have my car insurance, I have my cellphone, and then I got, like, two credit cards that I pay down. And I’m good after that.”

I’m rooting for the city team that will oversee the SA Ready to Work program and impressed with the 77% of voters who rallied in support of a significant anti-poverty initiative. Yet I’m skeptical of the program’s goals and its structure.

People living in poverty who want to gain the education necessary to qualify for better jobs, must find a way to pay rent or their mortgage and utilities, child care, groceries, and transportation. Take away their ability to make ends meet in any of these key categories and they will not successfully attend and complete a long-term program.

The estimated $200 million that will come from sales taxes and intended to put 40,000 people through training programs and into new jobs over four years will allocate only $5,000 per enrollee. That strikes me as a naively low per capita expenditure.

The city has other funding to provide individuals with one-time emergency grants up to $1,500 to pay rent, utilities, vehicle repairs, and to address other emergencies. The Alamo Area Community Network, a system of community-based service organizations, will be used to connect students with social care services.

That is not going to be enough, I predict.

Wouldn’t it be better, and more realistic, to lower the size of the target enrollee group and restructure SA Ready to Work with more comprehensive wraparound services designed to give participants greater financial stability through the life of the program?

Lifting, say, 10,000 heads of household out of poverty at a cost of $20,000 per person would be a worthy and, perhaps, more realistic goal. Such success would then embolden voters to find ways to extend the life of the initiative. Falling short will lead to the opposite outcome.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report, is now a freelance journalist.