JobPath has earned the right to avoid Pima County's budget axe

I talked to Ana Greif and she restored my faith in the entire human endeavor. And in the up-is-down, left-is-mackerel 2020s, that’s quite a lift.

She’s the CEO of JobPath, a local nonprofit training program. And don’t worry, conservatives, this is a victory story for you, too.

JobPath is a program that each year takes about 300 workers, struggling in dead-end jobs or without work at all, and puts them into a 1-2 year program to give them skills needed in Tucson’s labor market.

The program has a 90 percent graduation rate. Before JobPath, two-thirds of all students earn what the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development calls extremely low income. That’s less than half the area’s median income.

These students, typically in their 30s, aren’t born on third base. They are locked out of the stadium and often uncertain of the rules of the game.

“They don’t have social capital. They don’t have friends or relatives (with connections) – you need someone who knows the ropes,” Greif said.

The University of Arizona has a 65 percent six-year graduation rate. Harvard University’s six-year graduation rate is 97 percent — just seven points ahead of JobPath. It’s a bit of a rough comparison but not as much we think. More than a third of the class of 2022 were legacy admissions. Half of JobPath students have kids.

Dudes, I bought Tom Wolfe’s “A Man in Full” the week my daughter was born. Four years later, I’d managed to get through 50 pages of it. Then I lost it. Now I have to watch the Netflix series to figure out what happened to Charlie Croker.

JobPath places students in actual work in fields like nursing, manufacturing, aerospace tech and computer coding. There ain’t no Edwardian poetry certificates being awarded through this program.

Then, the average grad more than doubles their prior wage, tripling the return on investment in just two years.

During the pandemic, JobPath got buckets of extra federal money through the American Rescue Plan and was able to double enrollment to 670. Did it’s graduation rate dip? 

“Not by much,” Greif said, with a hint of defiant pride.

So of course Pima County Administrator Jan Lesher wants to cut the program by $100,000. The county is set to lose millions in federal relief dollars and Lesher rightly fears getting whacked by the state. The economy might be slowing, too.

JobPath has been operating on $1.75 million from the county. Beginning in June, they will be working on just $650,000 for FY2025. It’s a bit complicated. I’ll explain in a sec.

Flashing yellow lights

I understand where Lesher is coming from. She has to look at the whole system. I get to harp on a single program.

The county is losing $375 million in ARPA funding from the pandemic era. Also, voters keep rejecting bonds, so the county has to pay for its critical infrastructure needs out of the general fund.

The six economic indicators the county tracks are all flashing yellow. I’m talking housing numbers, interest rates, unemployment, inflation, retail sales and gas prices. The economy isn’t 2009 by any stretch. But the county is looking at couple different stressors that are putting the budget out of balance.

Throw on top of that how former Gov. Doug Ducey left Arizona with a growing budget mess. First he signed a flat tax, which is failing to raise the necessary revenue to cover costs, and then he exploded those costs with a universal school voucher program to subsidize rich parents sending their kids to elite private schools.

The only way the Legislature has shown it knows how to balance budgets is with cuts to assistance to the poor and by forcing local governments to chow down on the bullets.

In fact, one in four general fund dollars Pima County spends today is on programs and services the state used to provide. To balance the state budget, the Legislature simply shifted the costs to the county.

Trouble rolls downhill.

So Lesher’s challenge has gone out to all county departments and anyone getting county funds.

“Every single county department is getting a 3-percent cut,” Lesher said. “Everyone is giving a little.”

That’s a reasonable play for a system-wide approach and it’s not all bad news for JobPath, The program will still get $350,000 in the last tranche of coronavirus money, which must be spent by the end of the year.

So between now and Dec. 31, JobPath will still be living large. On Jan. 1, it’s living lean on the $650,000.

So JobPath will have $1 million in fiscal year 2025. However, for the last six months it will be running on the $650,000 figure. It’s like if your boss cuts your salary by 10 percent but gives you a sizable gift card that expires New Year’s Eve. Thereafter, you’d be living on the new, lower salary.

Lesher told me she is hoping to restore funding to $1.75 million (or a good portion of it) in fiscal year 2026, should conditions improve.

The county’s plan, as it stands today, is to bridge what is now a $5 million budget gap without raising taxes. By the end of the month, the board may decide to raise taxes. Supervisor Matt Heinz has a plan to increase the property tax rate by just under 10 cents per $100 of assessed valuation. That works out to about $25 per year for a household in a home with the average property value.

Taxes will probably be discussed at the next board meeting on May 21.

Reasons for success

Here’s how the JobPath program works.

Students must be enrolled in a qualifying institution of education. However, JobPath can help prospective students connect with the right curriculum.

For instance, they can send people over to the Pima County One Stop, who will then help students find the right program, say at Pima Community College, and help with financial assistance.

Then the student enrolls in JobPath, where they must pursue an associate’s degree or other form of academic credential. They receive skill training, personal mentoring and coaching. Also, they get schooled in the kind of “soft skills” employers want, like teamwork and professionalism.

Each student is assigned a success coach, who can stay on them to complete the program. Peer pressure did that for those of us who went to high schools with sky-high graduation rates and sent big numbers on to four-year colleges.

At the end of the day, it’s the students showing tenacity and red-blooded American grit that fuels the program’s success, Greif said.

“They are incredibly dedicated, tenacious and resilient. They work so hard and sacrifice comforts of every day life to stay in school and make a better life for them and their families,” she said.

What makes JobPath so productive, in my view, is the flexibility it has with budgeting.

This is one of those times, when having been dragged belly-first along the bumpy road of a recession gives me better insight as a political chatterer. Let me tell you, America’s safety net or “hand up” is unbelievably penny wise and pound foolish.

JobPath students are presumed “unavailable for work” and therefore are ineligible for unemployment insurance in Arizona. That makes sense for the first six months but anyone receiving extended benefits during a serious recession, it’s insane. It’s a relic of old-timey days, when skills didn’t change much. Today, what workers need to know can change by the quarter.

A JobPath student can get a few hundred bucks if they are short on rent or need their car fixed. Governments can’t do that in Arizona because it may be a violation of the state Constitution’s Gift Clause.

In order to give somebody a monetary hand, the government must have a specific program, with an application process to provide something like rental assistance, which requires an eviction or rent past-due notice before people can even ask for help and landlords are free to say “no” because the program is voluntary on their end.

Might I posit: That’s a tad on the late side.

There’s nothing out there for car repair, which can be vital for a job seeker. For instance, a vehicle goes inoperable long enough to miss registration (more to the point, emissions testing) and a landlord can have it towed, which just adds to the unaffordable cost of sorting out the transportation problem.

Try looking for a decent job without a ride. It gets so much harder.

That’s why Arizona’s Department of Commerce specifically insists that recipients (receiving a maximum benefit of $320 per month) make sure their cars are in good working order.

JobPath students will find it hard to impossible to be on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or unemployment insurance because they are supposed to be looking for a burger-flipping job.

The state could easily end up paying thousands upon thousands a year in unemployment insurance, food assistance, rental assistance and health care so recipients can subsist. However it won’t kick in an extra couple grand to re-skill a person for a job that’s out there, so they can thrive and be forever off the public dime.

That’s some bonkers puritanical Yankee-ism we have imported.

The unstated goal of Arizona’s social safety net management is to keep recipients as poor as possible while they compete against the gainfully employed. Meanwhile, out-of-date skills may not match the needs of the job market.

Living that close to the edge, any little financial hiccup becomes a Cat 5 hurricane.

And yet these students are graduating at a rate in the ballpark of Harvard students, which accepts only 3.59 percent of applicants. It takes only the best and the comfortable.

JobPath only accepts the most economically disadvantaged and takes as many students as the program can afford. These are young folks who wouldn’t know a safe space from a freaking mastodon and nine out of ten graduate anyway.

Just like pavement

Now, typically I have an axiom about receiving budget windfalls. Spend one-time revenue gains on one-time costs. A bunch of school districts used their ARPA money to buy new cooling and heating systems or new technology.

Don’t make short-term boosts in revenues part of ongoing costs because when revenues end, a fiscal wreck follows.

On the other hand, I also will preach to my last breath that local governments should never use pavement preservation money to shore up deficits. When pavement suffers erosion without maintenance, streets will need to be to be resurfaced at far higher costs than basic care. When they are neglected so long they must be rebuilt, then the price tag is gargantuan.

A program like JobPath is like that for the revenue side. It costs $2,000 to put a student through JobPath and Greif said the return is $6,000 within two years.

The Board of Supervisors should raise taxes just to scale up JobPath because it broadens the tax base. Then cutting rates can later be part of the conversation.

Right from the start

Why did I say “JobPath’s success is a victory for conservatives?” 

Ah yes. Gather round, kids, and let me tell a tale of the days of yore.

Once was a time when the GOP didn’t just babble on about shooting puppies, Jewish space lasers, preaching only one side can win a legitimate election, and how actors and media personalities are seeking eternal life by drinking the blood of children.

The Republicans were once described as “the Party of Ideas” and one of those ideas was devolution. Get power out of Washington, D.C., and give it to the people working problems at the ground level. Private charities and nonprofits could handle welfare programs better than a top-down, one-size-fits-all model dictated from inside the Beltway.

Democrats, they argued, didn’t want to do that because they wanted the government in control – specifically, the Fed’ral Gummint.

Take the restrictions off nonprofits and they could tailor a response to poverty centered on the individual and not the state.

As the late, great Molly Ivins would say “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.”

Greif and her team have proven the Right to be, well, right.

So, yeah, even Republican Supervisor Steve Christy supports funding JobPath at the current levels.

I’ve got a cut to make up the funding loss. Instead of chopping $100,000 from Sun Corridor Inc. and JobPath each, cut $200,000 from the Tucson area’s economic development firm. It talks a big game and no doubt, can hobnob with the best of them, but when it comes to results, Sun Corridor’s Joe Snell is unworthy of casting a glance at Greif.

Hey, Pima County… pretend JobPath is promising space balloon launches. That would be worth what? $15 million?

JobPath’s students are doing their part. The county and the rest of us should pour resources into the breach to make a better tomorrow for all of us.