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How the Rise of Urban Nonprofits Has Exacerbated Poverty

While "meds and eds" have powered urban economies, they haven't been the gateway out of poverty that many hoped.

The idea to grow nonprofit organizations not just for the services they provided but for the jobs they created came from two social scientists, Arthur Pearl and Frank Riessman, in their 1965 book, “New Careers for the Poor: The Nonprofessional in Human Service.” Hiring unemployed people as “nonprofessional” or “paraprofessional” aides for health care, teaching, social services or research would, they argued, reduce poverty through job creation and improve service delivery.

Foundation officials and lawmakers soon adopted this logic and underwrote financially and intellectually the creation of new aide jobs in urban nonprofit organizations. The men leading this charge were quite forward-thinking in their recognition of poverty as a structural consequence of a political economy transitioning from being driven by industry to being driven by services. Yet they were naive both about the ways that race and gender shaped the labor market and about what would happen to entry-level employees in these “nonprofessional” jobs‚ such as health aides, teacher or child-care aides, or research assistants whose work enabled credentialed professionals to focus on the skilled portioned of their jobs.

While those pushing for the creation of these jobs envisioned them as a means to employ white men displaced from manufacturing, the paraprofessional jobs created at health centers and hospitals, Head Start schools, and universities in the late 1960s became overwhelmingly filled by women of color. Women recognized these as some of the few job opportunities created by Great Society programs for which they were eligible and as a way to legitimize the kind of care work they had been doing on a voluntary basis. Men had applied — and those who took aide positions were celebrated in federal reports — but the kind of work aides performed carried stereotypes of being women’s work or helper roles, and therefore worthy of lower wages, lower status and a lower likelihood of serving as an on-ramp to professionalized work.

It was this last point that proved to be the biggest flaw in the vision of paraprofessional jobs at nonprofits serving as a springboard. Backers like Pearl and Riessman believed that once employed, aides would gain access to a ladder toward a stable, profitable “new career” — that health aides would advance to be medical assistants, then medical associates, “until ultimately the status of medical doctor was reached.” The flaw was not in expecting an aide to be able to reach such heights; it was expecting employers to provide the ladders on which to do so by recognizing the contribution of aides and rewarding them with promotions, on-the-job training, professionalizing credentials, salary increases and benefits.