In 1998, Amy Valderas was a single mom with three kids, all under the age of seven. She had no work experience, and lived with her sister. So she went to sign up for government assistance. But instead of welfare benefits, she got a job offer.
“I was very hesitant at first,” she says. “Because I was always with my kids, and I was worried about transportation, daycare, all kinds of stuff, you know.”
But she took the job anyway. Soon she was working 12-hour days on the factory floor, and coming in on weekends. She thought about quitting.
“Because the work is so difficult. I’d never worked before,” she says. “And then the long hours.”
Sociologists have a catch-all word for the types of problems Valderas confronted: barriers. For many low-income people trying to wean themselves off public assistance, or trying to avoid it altogether, there can be a lot of barriers. Car breaks down, can’t get to work. Babysitter falls through, same deal.
But Valderas made it past her barriers. She didn’t quit her job. She’s still there, more than a decade later. The reason Valderas didn’t quit, and didn’t end up back on public assistance, has a lot to do with the company she worked for.
Around the time Valderas arrived, Cascade Engineering in Grand Rapids, Michigan was starting a new program called Welfare to Career. What made the program different is Cascade actually paid the state of Michigan to bring a public caseworker to the company.
“And once I came on site and started doing this work, I felt like I was really making a difference in people’s lives,” says Joyce Gutierrez, the Michigan Department of Human Services caseworker who Cascade brought aboard.
Gutierrez says that by being at the company, she hears about problems sooner. She knows when one of her clients misses work. If it’s because of a problem with transportation or child care, she solves it on the spot.
Cascade CEO Fred Keller says after Gutierrez came on site, Cascade’s worker turnover rate dropped to almost nothing. So the company benefited. And the state had fewer people cycling back onto welfare rolls.
For Keller, Welfare to Career fits into a larger philosophy about the role of private business in society.
“When we have social problems that can be solved by business and not cost anything to speak of for the business itself, why not do that?” he asks.
After 15 years, Cascade’s approach is gaining traction. It’s been replicated at eight other companies. The state of Michigan is even expanding on the idea by starting to place caseworkers in public schools.