Program for Arkansas teens showing promise

Income, jobs up for participants

WASHINGTON -- A program aimed at moving Arkansas youths from the disability rolls to employment is showing early signs of success, according to Brent Thomas Williams, an associate professor of counselor education at the University of Arkansas.

He spoke at the National Press Club on Wednesday at a session focusing on "improving the trajectories for youth with disabilities and families living in poverty."

Williams is principal investigator for Arkansas Promise, a five-year, $36 million program focused on finding jobs and opportunities for Arkansas teenagers who receive Supplemental Security Income.

Open to enrollees between the ages of 14 and 16, it was one of six pilot projects across the country. California, New York, Maryland and Wisconsin had programs of their own. The sixth "model demonstration project" was a regional effort, encompassing Utah, Montana, Colorado, Arizona, North Dakota and South Dakota.

Richard Luecking of the Center for Transition and Career Innovation at the University of Maryland said early reports from all six projects are highly encouraging.

"It's really hard to overstate the importance of the Promise investment," he told the audience Wednesday.

PROMISE, which stands for "Promoting the Readiness of Minors on Supplemental Security Income," was the result of collaboration between the U.S. Education and Labor departments as well as the Department of Health and Human Services and the Social Security Administration.

After 18 months, participants in all six pilot projects were more successful at finding work than members of a control group. In four cases, they also saw their earnings increase by a statistically significant amount, according to Mathematica Policy Research, a Princeton, N.J.-based organization that analyzed the data.

The Arkansas experiment, which wraps up this year, surpassed the others, however, in terms of youth employment and youth earnings.

Roughly 2,000 Arkansas youths participated in the research project. Half received Arkansas Promise services; the others did not.

Participants received training, "intensive case management" and assistance finding jobs. An earned income exclusion allowed them to make money without jeopardizing their SSI payments.

Fifty-six percent of the participants in Arkansas Promise said they had held paying jobs, compared with 20 percent in the control group, officials said. Arkansas Promise participants reported earnings in the previous year of $1,960. The control group had earnings of $747.

"We were dealing with some of the most marginalized folks within our country. This marginalization, this lack of resources, this lack of opportunities, is what facilitates generational poverty," Williams said.

In order to make the program work, Arkansas Promise officials had to build relationships and earn trust from the people they serve, he said.

In an interview, Williams said Arkansas Promise has been "highly successful" thus far.

"We've increased, very significantly, those number of kids who are working in competitive employment. We've increased significantly those kids who are going on to higher education and doing job training," he said.

The verdict is still out on its long-term impact, he said.

A lot is riding on the experiment, he noted.

"If a youth, at age 16, gets on Social Security and stays on for a normal life span, that's 60 years worth of benefit payouts," he said.

Moving a youth with a disability from Social Security to paid employment is life-changing for the individual and enormously beneficial to society, Williams said.

"From a fiscal standpoint, reducing reliance on benefits is good. But from a human standpoint, [you're] giving someone independence, giving someone a greater part [in] the community," he said.

Hershell West, co-director of Arkansas Promise, said the work has been uplifting.

"I think about the families that we've worked with the last five years. I think about the hope we've given them, the encouragement," he said.

Some of the participants have found career paths. Some of them are now going to college.

"They feel like they're a meaningful contributor and they're excited to be a part of their community," he added.

Metro on 04/25/2019