Commentary: In University City, giving the jobless a chance

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The Philadelphia Inquirer
By Matt Bergheiser

Imagine applying to 42 jobs in three months and not landing a single interview. Imagine what it feels like to realize that even jobs at the lowest rungs of the career ladder require online applications when you haven’t turned on a computer in years. Imagine being so desperate for income that you’ll ride two trains and a bus for a chance at back-breaking day labor that might not even materialize.

This story line is typical for citizens returning from prison, as a criminal conviction is often a career-ender, creating devastating impacts for individuals, families, and communities. Across the United States, 650,000 people are released from state prisons every year. Recent research suggests that in spite of applying for hundreds of openings, up to 75 percent will still be unemployed a year after their release, which merely fuels a vicious cycle of re-incarceration. And when returning citizens do find work, they are often relegated to informal, part-time, or temporary jobs that pay meager or inconsistent wages.

For some employers, however, criminal backgrounds are data points and not deal breakers. Green City Works, a landscaping subsidiary run by the economic development organization University City District (UCD), is one such business. Green City operates at the intersection of UCD’s focus on public-space management and its efforts to connect unemployed West Philadelphians to job opportunities in University City’s rapidly expanding eds-and-meds economy.