The American middle class is under stress, but American innovation is alive and thriving. Lots of people and organizations are trying new ways to strengthen the nation’s beleaguered middle class. No single group or government entity, of course, has all—or even any—of the best answers. But together, they might. The most successful approaches often have deep local roots, and many emphasize collaboration.
In an online series throughout the year, National Journal and The Atlantic will highlight innovators for a stronger middle class, ranging from tech start-ups with a vision to organizations with solid track records for improving social outcomes or helping businesses grow. The patchwork of ideas across the nation and across sectors of the economy offers clues—and reasons for hope—for middle-class prosperity in the Next Economy.
Here are five proven innovations.
FROM PROM TO WORK
Frank Pena doesn’t have much time to chat, because he’s repairing a jet engine. The 24-year-old technician at Lockheed Martin is a big guy, but even he looks tiny compared with some of the engines—from the Air Force’s C-5 to the commercial Boeing 727—arrayed in the San Antonio factory. Pena is here, and not flipping burgers at McDonald’s, because of a decision he made when he was a sophomore in high school. He enrolled in the Alamo Area Aerospace Academy.
“They wish they’d done the same thing I did,” Pena says of his high school friends who are working in low-wage service jobs. San Antonio’s four industry-driven Alamo academies are rigorous programs that leave little time for band or football. But graduates finish high school having earned half the credits they’ll need for an associate’s degree, while gaining solid work experience, and—if they’re lucky—a job offer from a major corporation.
The Aerospace Academy grew out of Lockheed Martin’s worry that too many of its workers were reaching retirement age. San Antonio has long been a center of heavy-aircraft maintenance, because of the Air Force bases nearby. But the area had no pipeline to encourage and train young people to enter the field.
Several years ago, this unmet need prompted Joe Wilson, then Lockheed Martin’s manager of staffing and development, to approach a community college to discuss possible solutions. The aerospace sector, local school districts, San Antonio officials, and the two-year Alamo Colleges developed a program they hoped would encourage teenagers to consider a career in the aerospace industry and accelerate their path to becoming certified mechanics.
Students accepted into the competitive Aerospace Academy spend their junior and senior years of high school taking courses—at no charge—that count toward both a high school diploma and a community-college degree. They also complete a paid summer internship hosted by a participating employer. The academy has been so successful, Wilson says, it now produces a fifth of the workers Lockheed Martin hires locally right out of high school.
The program inspired other industries to follow the same model. San Antonio is home to three additional Alamo academies, training students to work in manufacturing, health care, and information technology.
The promise of free college credits is what attracted 17-year-old Jacob Trevino to the Aerospace Academy. “It just blew my mind,” he said, to learn how many credits he could earn while still in high school. Trevino likes mechanics, but he’s more interested in business. No problem: It’s not unusual for academy graduates to move eventually from the factory floor to the business office, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees along the way.
A PROPHET’S RENT SUBSIDIES
Breaking the cycle of poverty starts with helping the mothers. That’s the philosophy behind the Jeremiah Program, a nonprofit group in Minnesota that provides young, single mothers with an apartment and child care while they work toward a college diploma.
Single-parent families headed by a mother are four times as likely to live in poverty as families with married parents and children under 18, according to federal census data, and Americans raised in poverty are likelier to struggle as single parents themselves. Bearing a child too young can prevent poor women from getting the education they need to land better jobs.
The Jeremiah Program hopes to block that cycle, offering 39 apartments in its Minneapolis “campus” at subsidized rents and 38 others in St. Paul, each with a child-care facility on-site. The organization also offers coaching in life skills, help in getting a job, and a sense of community.
Many of the woman who apply to the program are “from families that have been in poverty for many generations, and there is something in them that is wanting out of that,” says Kathy Graves, a Jeremiah spokeswoman. They must already be enrolled in a higher-education program and undergo 16 weeks of “personal empowerment training” before moving into an apartment. The women’s average age is 24, and most of their children are 5 years old or younger; they typically work part time to pay their rent (set at a third of their income) and the costs of education.
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