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America Works Works

Frank Underwood of House of Cards. Source:

In the latest season of House of Cards, Frank Underwood proudly proclaims “America Works works.” And it does.

However, the America Works that exists in reality (the subject of the remainder of this article) is nothing like the fictional plan proposed in the television series. It does not threaten to raid FEMA funds or cut from the programs that make up our social safety net. It is a private company created in 1984 to find employment for “military veterans, long-term welfare and food-stamp recipients, former criminal offenders, people who are homeless and living in shelters, youths aging out of foster care, non-custodial parents, people living with HIV/AIDS, and people receiving SSI/SSDI.”

So how does this real life version of America Works work? Fittingly, the core theme of America Works in House of Cards rings true in its real-life counterpart—that employment is the single best way to help the poor help themselves. Rather than approaching this idea from a trickle-down perspective as advocated by many on the right or, even, from the perspective of a “New Deal of the 21st century” as depicted in House of Cards, America Works approaches the problem through education and networking. Through training in  “soft skills” (like resume building and interview preparation) as well as a network of employers able and willing to hire employees other firms would not even consider, those with poor socioeconomic status or a less than flattering medical/felony history can find employment. Most importantly, it works, and their efforts have resulted in:

  • National awards for public policy innovation from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and from the Ford Foundation
  • Recognition and awards for its innovative and creative program model from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and the National Welfare-to-Work Partnership.

Despite receiving these accolades, America Works is not an attempt to create a working alternative to our current social safety net of food stamps, Medicaid, subsidized health insurance, etc. Instead, America Works strives to give this safety net the elasticity it needs to allow those who have hit hard times to bounce back.

The programs that make up our safety net, like food stamps and Medicaid, are not intended to sustain those who are “too lazy” or “too stupid” to sustain themselves. They are not intended to be a viable substitute for “pulling oneself by their own bootstraps.” They are intended to provide the minimum set of resources someone would need to get their life back on track. Ordinary Americans cannot find themselves jobs if they are gravely sick or if they are starving. Period.

America Works could bridge the gap between providing stable ground for those facing hard times and giving them the rungs they need to climb up the socioeconomic ladder, namely in the form of consistent, reliable employment.  This is precisely what defines our country, the idea that no matter where you come from, how many people you know, or how much money you may have, you can make it here. It is an idea pursued by politicians from both sides of the aisle, albeit through distinctly opposite approaches, and it is an idea brought tantalizingly closer to fruition through a private company without taxpayer subsidy. And with only thirteen locations across the country, it is time our government explores similarly revenue-neutral solutions on a larger scale so we can replicate a system we know works—America Works.