Late last year, I made my third trip to Bonton Farms in southern Dallas. Each time I leave to go back to my home in the northern suburbs, I feel angry, overwhelmed, sad and encouraged, all at the same time.
I’m angry because the public policies put into place over the years on criminal justice and welfare have exacerbated many of the problems residents of the Bonton neighborhood experience.
Overwhelmed, because the needs are so great, the workers few and the solutions painstakingly slow.
Sad, because the people I have met are good people who are caught up in a system — however they got there — that is designed to keep them right where they are, dependent on the government to survive (even though that might not have been the original intention).
And encouraged, because of people like Daron Babcock and Ricky Jimmerson, who are dedicating their time to changing life and lives in the Bonton community. And they are succeeding.
My latest visit to Bonton was to observe a focus group of Bonton residents (along with Babock and Jimmerson) put together by the Texas Public Policy Foundation. In my role as a special adviser to TPPF, I help develop public policy solutions for problems associated with continual reliance on government assistance and a lack of opportunity or pathways to move to independence.
Prior to this visit a group of us policy wonks was sitting in a conference room talking about all the things that needed to change to provide a path off government assistance. (A wonk, by the way, is someone who supposedly knows a topic backwards and forwards. This discussion shows that to be less than accurate.) One of us raised the question, “How many of us have ever been on government assistance or in prison?”
No one raised a hand.
This is no way to solve a public policy problem. We needed to speak directly to people who had in the past experienced or were currently experiencing the system. The Bonton focus group made this possible.
What did we learn? We learned people don’t want to be on government assistance. Yet the system, which measures its success by how many are enrolled, rather than by how many are liberated from it, is incentivized to keep people dependent.
We learned that finding which benefits you’re eligible for is maddeningly frustrating and complex. Housing rules are often a barrier to keeping families together. We learned that public education is failing poor families. And we learned that obtaining simple documents like a driver’s license, along with finding transportation and housing, are the biggest issues facing people coming out of prison.
Solving these problems should be a bipartisan goal.
During my seven years in the Texas Legislature, we were most successful in helping our fellow Texans when we set aside partisanship and worked together.
A good example of this was the successful passage of the Industrial Workforce Apprenticeship Program Act in 2019. It created a public-private partnership between industry and government to give companies an incentive to create earn-while-you-learn programs and apprenticeships. Aimed at former inmates and those on welfare, these programs pay a minimum of $15 per hour.
That’s important because of how welfare is structured. Many welfare recipients are fearful of seeking employment and job training opportunities because they don’t want to risk their benefits. That earn-while-you-learn paycheck serves as the bridge between dependence and self-reliance.
The idea came from a successful program already in place, run by S&B Constructors in Houston, which targets people on government assistance, veterans and people reentering society from our criminal justice system. Participants receive training in things like welding and pipefitting. The program provides for guaranteed employment after they receive their certifications. And there’s plenty of opportunity for advancement after that.
For trainees, it’s a bright new future. For S&B, the program builds a well-trained and dedicated workforce.
The pandemic has delayed the full rollout of the apprenticeship legislation, but the law is on the books and all we need now is for the state to provide some funding for the incentive ($10 million per biennium was the initial figure in the legislation) either through tax breaks for participating companies or specific dollar grants to companies to help cover a portion of the cost of these programs.
In the southern Dallas neighborhood I visit, opportunity is sprouting up in the gardens and flower beds at Bonton Farms. We can support the work of people like Babock and Jimmerson, who are working to improve their own lives and the lives of others by creating even more opportunity. We can do it in a nonpartisan way — after all, it was state Rep. Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, and state Sen. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, who sponsored the apprenticeship legislation.
We can give our neighbors, especially those in neighborhoods like Bonton, what I feel most when I visit — hope.