Greenwich Social Services Director: Moving from Safety Net to Self-Sufficiency

Written by Alan D. Barry, PhD, Commissioner, Greenwich Department of Human Services

One of the greatest challenges the Greenwich Department of Human Services faces is the lingering effects of an economic recovery that has not benefited all equally. As reported by numerous news outlets, personal income in the U.S. rose by 2 percent in the first quarter of 2019 compared with 2018.

Connecticut’s growth, however, was only about one fourth of that increase. Between 2010 and 2014 Connecticut significantly lagged the rest of the country not only in jobs recovered but also in wages regained.

The state lost many high-paying jobs during this period in areas such as finance and manufacturing and replaced them with lower paying service jobs. Low wage occupations accounted for 21% of job losses during the recession but since employment has expanded has accounted for 58% of all job growth.

The Department of Social Services Board (now the Department of Human Services) revised the department’s mission statement in its 2011-2013 strategic plan to emphasize the importance of promoting services that foster client self-sufficiency.

This approach entailed helping clients with short-term financial assistance while working with them on a plan establishing goals for self-sufficiency.

Historically, the department functioned as a safety net agency. Case workers met with clients to determine if they met income requirements for local financial assistance and state or federal benefit programs. That changed in 2011, when the department began transforming its service delivery from case work into a case management system that now actively includes job
counseling and assisting clients with education opportunities.

The efforts by the department case managers has been enhanced by an electronic management information system, ClientTrack. It allows the case manager to establish a complete record that documents a client’s needs and establishes a service plan that includes specific goals, objectives, and time frames for accomplishing the goals.

An important element in this change was to set up an employment counseling service partnering with the Family Center’s RITE (Reaching Independence Through Employment) Program. This arrangement offers on-site employment support for department clients.

Hundreds of department clients have been assisted in assessing their job opportunity potential, developing resumes, improving interview skills, and applying for jobs. A significant number of clients have succeeded in finding jobs or upgrading their employment status.

Even with the success of the program, a great challenge exists for those with limited education. The replacement of lost higher wage jobs with lower wage positions slows growth in personal income as cost of living expenses increase.

Connecticut has been slow to invest in workforce development, providing new career training or supporting growth in advanced technology careers.

Better use of the state’s two-year community colleges offers one viable alternative with programs that teach the skills needed for higher paying jobs.

It’s wishful thinking to expect higher-paying manufacturing jobs will be coming back to this country; globalization and automation have made that a moot point.

Our society has shifted from manufacturing and producing to a consumer and service based economy. Half of the 10 fastest growing jobs in America are low-paid variants of nursing. It is time to recognize that people working in the service industries – the childcare worker, food server, personal care aide, and home health worker – are the modern work force and desperately need an increased minimum and living wage.

This process begins with improved education programs aimed at job skills training. State economic development efforts need to be focused more on local businesses and local job growth, rather than large companies that offer low wage work.

For the department to succeed in fulfilling its mission and assist clients to become self-sufficient, the creation of jobs offering a living wage is essential.