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November 1, 2008    DOL Home > Newsroom > Speeches & Remarks   

Speeches by Secretary Elaine L. Chao

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Remarks Prepared for Delivery by
U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao
The White House National Summit on Prisoner Reentry
Los Angeles, California
Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Thank you, Jay [Hein, Director of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives]. You and Jedd [Medefind, Deputy Director WHOFCBI] are doing a great job at the White House!

And let me also recognize Rhett Butler, Director of the Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives at the U.S. Department of Labor. Thank you for your hard work and your leadership.

Empowering faith — based and community organizations throughout America is something that President Bush — and First Lady Laura Bush — care about deeply. So today, permit me to share with you what the U.S. Department of Labor is doing to implement the President's Faith-Based and Community Initiative. And, then I'd like to share with you two important programs that are giving hope and a second chance to those who have paid their debt to society.

As the President has said many times, our nation is great because of the compassion of its citizens. And there is no better example of this than the community and faith-based organizations working all across our country to help others.

The government is an institution. It is not alive or compassionate, and there are limits to its action. The government can provide assistance, but it cannot transform lives the way faith, hope or the involvement of a caring neighbor can.

Faith-based and community organization have a remarkable ability to help those in need of assistance. The transformational power of hope reinforces all other sources of aid and comfort. Government should not discriminate against these organizations — all they seek is a level playing field.

And that's exactly what this Administration has provided — a level playing field for those eager to help. At the Department of Labor, we have taken aggressive action to carry out the President's visions by leveling the playing field for Faith-Based and Community Organizations in every agency. The Department has created innovative grant programs that draw upon the unique strengths of faith-based and community organizations that complement the strengths of the workforce system. From 2002 to 2006, the Department has awarded direct grants totaling over $486 million to 937 non-profit organizations, 12 state workforce agencies, and 22 local workforce investment boards to create partnerships between Faith-Based and Community Organizations and the One-Stop Career Center System. It's part of our ongoing effort to improve services for those in need of extra help and strengthen partnerships with faith-based and community organizations.

In 2005 to 2006, grants to faith-based and community organizations accounted for 84 percent of all Department of Labor discretionary grants to which non-profits were eligible to apply.

Jay mentioned that I was President and CEO of the United Way of America. At United Way, I observed firsthand the power of faith-based and community organizations to change people's lives. As the President always says, things can only change from the inside. A person's heart has to change for there to be comprehensive change in the individual. So when community and faith-based groups are permitted to partner with the government, our country, and our communities benefit.

That's because some of the best work is done at the local level by people who have a deep personal commitment to the individuals they serve. And the federal government needs to support that.

Yesterday, I had the chance to sit down with a group from the Escalera Youth Visionaries program. This organization helps at-risk youth who have been involved, or are at risk of being involved, with the criminal justice system.

I was able to see firsthand what a difference they are making in young people's lives.

Let me tell you about one young man who I met yesterday. He has an amazing story. When Tomas ["Toe-MAHS"] was just 17 years old, he was out of school, had no job, and had joined a gang. Clearly, his life was going in the wrong direction. But he enrolled at Escalera and started turning his life around. He moved to the top of his class for completing his work. He took both the English and math exams for the GED. And while waiting for the results, he continues to take computer classes. So instead of moving up the gang hierarchy, this young man has started moving up the ladder of success. He is making real progress toward his personal and educational goals.

As a result of the Faith-Based and Community Initiative, hundreds of dedicated organizations have stepped forward to work side-by-side with the Department of Labor to help the unemployed, the underemployed, and the never employed.

I think we all agree that the best strategy to reach those in need is to enlist every willing partner. In the past, many of these organizations worked in total isolation from government. That was true even when they were working toward similar goals. But today, thanks to the President's vision, the federal government is working with faith-based and community organizations toward shared goals. Again and again, it is making a real difference.

Community and faith-based groups possess unique and invaluable strengths. To exclude them from partnerships short-changes both our country and the people who need our help. And often, it is the personal concern and caring touch that make the critical difference for those who are at risk: the father who's lost his job and his hope, the ex-offender wanting a fresh start, the struggling single mom.

In 2003, the Department launched the Ready4Work Program. Eleven sites were chosen to participate in the Ready4Work program. Ready4Work was designed to leverage the trust and leadership of faith-based and community organizations to help ex-offenders build better lives. The program offered job training, job placement, mentoring and other services to help these men and women transition successfully back into their communities. Many of them want to do it on their own. But they also need strong support — from their loved ones, their community, and their place of worship. And so it's very important that we are there to provide help when it's needed.

There are 650,000 offenders released every year — more than 130,000 of these in California. Helping this population is a critical challenge for our society. It's not a question of whether or not we do this, but how we do it. Ready4Work helped ex-offenders access stable employment and develop strong social bonds. They were able to access hope and opportunity — not only for themselves, but for their families and their loved ones.

The results show tremendous promise. Over the three year life of the Ready4Work project, a total of 2,543 ex-offenders were placed into jobs. Sixty-three percent of those placed retained their job more than three months later. Ready4Work participants have a 50 percent lower rate of returning to prison after six months than Justice Department benchmarks, and a 44 percent lower rate after one year. That's a tremendous achievement. Yet there is still much more to be done. But these results give us hope that, with the proper help, those most at risk in our society can turn their lives around.

Based on the success of the Ready4Work project, President George W. Bush announced, in his 2004 State of the Union address, a new initiative to expand job training and placement services for former prisoners who had paid their debt to society and were about to re-enter their communities.
He said, "America is the land of the second chance..." Then he laid out a vision of how faith-based and community groups could expand and strengthen the government's efforts to reach out to this community.

Let me also share with you the milestones we achieved with the President's Reentry Initiative, or PRI, which we saw in the video. Building on the strong foundation laid by the Ready4Work program, this additional program serves more than 6,000 ex-prisoners every year. The Prisoner Reentry Initiative provides them with a positive, productive link into the communities to which they are returning. Following a large competition, the Department has awarded approximately 40 million in grants to 30 PRI faith-based and community organizations across the country. These organizations began operations in spring of 2006. And as of November 9, 2007, 10,361 men and women have enrolled in the program. So far, 6,035 have been placed into jobs. One year after release, the rate of re-arrest for those who have participated in the program is currently 20 percent. That's less than half the Bureau of Justice Statistics' national benchmark of 44 percent.

And here in California, we have four excellent programs that participate in this initiative. They are:

  • The Fresno Career Development Institute,
  • The Allen Temple Housing and Economic Development Corporation,
  • The Mexican American Alcoholism Program, and
  • The Metro United Methodist Urban Ministry.

Let me share a story about someone who really needed a helping hand. I won't use his real name, but let's just call him "Joe." Joe was in and out of state prison and severely addicted to cocaine. That meant his wife was the sole supporter of their eight children. So as you can imagine, it was tough going. His oldest son became a ward of the court, a gang member and a substance abuser. Two of the sisters were high school dropouts. Things could have gone downhill from there. But then they found and were able to enroll in a PRI site in California.

Within a year of receiving help, all three children have turned their lives around. The eldest son successfully completed probation, graduated from a six-month treatment facility, and got a job that allows him to care for his two children. The two sisters got part-time employment and will graduate from high school next month. Joe enrolled in a PRI program that provided job readiness training, relapse prevention and behavior modification workshops. He also set out to repair his relationship with his wife and asked to receive counseling. With the support he received, Joe was able to make profound changes in his life. Today he is sober, working, and enjoying being a husband and a father. He works as a firewatch for $10 an hour. After six months of beating substance abuse, Joe will join an apprenticeship program as a pipefitter. He will start at $14 an hour. So this program is making a real difference in real lives.

And make no mistake about it — program participants aren't being placed in make-work jobs. There is an acute need in our country for workers in the skilled trades, such as plumbers, carpenters, welders, and electricians. More than 8 million net jobs have been created since August 2003. And our nation's unemployment rate is a low 4.7 percent — lower than the average of the 1990s. But many of these new jobs require more education and more skills than in the past. That's why these two programs are so essential. We are providing skills training so these men and women can access good paying jobs back in their communities. There are opportunities for every willing worker that we can reach and train.

That's why it's vital that we work together. Because, if we don't, there will continue to be a heavy cost to our society. We know that the long-term financial costs of re-incarceration far exceed the cost of reentry programs.

But that isn't even the most important reason. The heaviest cost is the loss of human dignity when people are living lives of poverty, addiction, and despair. We must — and we can — break that cycle. And faith-based and community organizations posses unique and invaluable strengths to help us reach out to those most in need.

So thank you for everything you are doing to bring hope and opportunity to so many. Working together, we can continue to ensure that everyone in our society has a second chance, and the tools they need to build lives of independence and dignity.

Thank you and God bless you and you work!

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