A tax credit was meant to help marginalized workers get permanent jobs. Instead it’s subsidizing temp work.

The government gives hundreds of millions of dollars in Work Opportunity Tax Credits to temp agencies, even if the jobs they offer don’t lead to permanent employment.

Image Credit: Luke Sharrett/ProPublica

Funded in part by the Abrams Nieman Fellowship for Local Investigative Journalism at Harvard University.

DeMond Bush was living in his friend’s basement in Louisville, Kentucky, in 2017 when he heard about a job that could help him get beyond his past. Since getting out of prison two years earlier, the 43-year-old had cycled through day labor and temp work but hadn’t been able to find anything steady. He’d spent more than two decades behind bars for a violent crime that he was charged with as a teenager. During that time, he’d done everything he could to prepare for a better life — earning several associate’s degrees, learning a trade and performing in nine Shakespeare plays. But the world outside didn’t seem to care.

So when the temp agency Express Employment Professionals offered him a “temp-to-hire” position at a warehouse run by Tennant Company, a cleaning products manufacturer, Bush couldn’t help but get his hopes up. Bush said Express wasn’t concerned by his record and told him that if he worked 90 days as a temp, he’d be considered for a job working directly for Tennant with higher wages, plus benefits and sick days.

“I’m thinking, ‘I’m going in and prove myself, work hard, they’ll judge me based off that,’” said Bush, who was born in New Jersey but occasionally slips into a Southern lilt.

His plan seemed to be working: Bush said his managers told him he was doing a good job and he’d likely get hired. That changed on his 90th day on the job, after Tennant ran a background check, Bush said. In an instant, Bush’s months of hard work vanished. When he showed up for work the next day, a company representative escorted him off the property.

“I was feeling like, man, you know, I put this effort into this thing,” Bush said. “And then here it was, something from 27 years ago, it’s still haunting me. It seems like I can’t get past it, no matter how hard I work or what effort I put into it.”

Yet to the federal government, this outcome was worthy of a reward. Bush’s temp work was more than enough to qualify Express for a tax credit worth up to $2,400.

After losing the job, Bush became homeless and was caught in Indiana, having crossed state lines without permission. That was a violation of his parole, and Bush returned to prison.

When Congress passed the Work Opportunity Tax Credit to encourage businesses to hire and retain marginalized workers, lawmakers made it clear that the credit should be used for permanent employment — not dead-end temp jobs like Bush’s.

Instead, the $2 billion program is now handing out hundreds of millions of dollars a year in subsidies for the very jobs lawmakers wanted to avoid rewarding. ProPublica analyzed data from nine states’ WOTC applications and found that nearly a quarter of the jobs certified for the tax credit between 2018 and 2020 were with temp agencies. The numbers become even more striking when the analysis is limited to one eligible group — workers with felony records. Thirteen of the top 14 employers certified to get credits for those workers were temp agencies.

In addition, some of the credit’s biggest beneficiaries are temp agencies with long records of labor violations.

Express did not respond to multiple calls and emails. Tennant, which benefited from Bush’s work but wasn’t eligible for the credit because it wasn’t his direct employer, declined to comment.

Coming out of the welfare reform movement of the mid-1990s, the WOTC aimed to give groups like food stamp recipients, residents of high-poverty areas and formerly incarcerated people access to long-term employment. In exchange, companies could write off thousands of dollars from their taxes for each worker they hired.

But the program’s rules didn’t match that intent. To receive the minimum tax credit — worth 25% of a worker’s wages — a company need only employ a worker for 120 hours, or about three weeks of full-time work. Employers can get the maximum credit — 40% of a worker’s wage, up to $2,400 — after just 10 weeks. The criteria say nothing about type of employer or the quality of the job and don’t forbid companies with a history of workplace violations from participating.

In the absence of tighter rules, the WOTC has become a financial boon for large low-wage employers with high turnover, including Walmart, Dollar General and Amazon. Those three companies are the top recipients of the tax credit in ProPublica’s analysis.

Walmart and Dollar General did not respond to requests for comment. Amazon spokesperson Barbara Agrait said, “Like many other companies, we utilize the Work Opportunity Tax Credit and we believe it helps to break down barriers some may face when seeking employment and encourages a strong and diverse workforce.”

But few industries have benefited as much as temp agencies.

Corporate filings by publicly traded temp agencies reveal how big a windfall the tax credit has been. One company, Kelly Services, reported receiving tax credits, “primarily” WOTC, worth $164 million over 10 years, or 48% of its U.S. pre-tax earnings. TrueBlue, which owns the day-labor firm PeopleReady, reported receiving tax credits — also described as “primarily” WOTC — worth $114 million over the past 10 years, or 29% of its pre-tax income. The credits reduced TrueBlue’s federal income taxes by 69% and Kelly Services’ by 73%.

“Everybody’s winning except the formerly incarcerated person,” said Andrea C. James, executive director of the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls.

Taylor Winchell, a TrueBlue spokesperson, said the WOTC “addresses a compelling need,” and suggested temp jobs serve the program’s goals by giving workers the chance to learn skills and providing “a path to permanent employment.” Kelly Services declined to comment on its use of the tax credit.

The departments of Labor and the Treasury share responsibility for the WOTC, but neither agency collects much data on it, even as it diverts billions from public coffers. Studies published over the last two decades cast doubt on whether the tax credit has led to long-term jobs.

“One of the most shocking things I ever discovered was how short these jobs are,” said Sarah Hamersma, an economist at Syracuse University who found that the subsidized jobs had little or no effect on workers’ long-term employment.

“I used to tell people, ‘I’m just waiting for someone to call me to give my testimony,’ but nobody does,” she said. “My cynical view is this is a program that clearly benefits businesses and gets support among that contingent. And it looks like it benefits vulnerable workers. So it tends to get a lot of support.”

The American Staffing Association defended the industry’s use of the credits. “As hiring experts, staffing agencies can help individuals obtain job training and uncover talents, experiences, and skills that can help them put their best foot forward with future employers,” Toby Malara, vice president for government relations, said in a statement.

Labor Department spokesperson Monica Vereen said the law doesn’t allow it to deny WOTC certifications based on job type or an employer’s record of labor violations. However, she said, “the department welcomes the opportunity” to assist Congress in strengthening the program. Similarly, Treasury spokesperson Julia Krieger said, “While we would like WOTC to lead to lasting employment, the IRS is administering the statute as it was enacted by Congress.”

Today, the WOTC costs the federal government about $2 billion each year. That’s enough to provide free community college tuition for 512,820 people, and, after adjusting for inflation, it’s about eight times what Congress estimated the program would cost in 1996.

Back then, lawmakers made the tax credit temporary so that the government could fully assess its effectiveness before making it permanent. A formal review has yet to occur.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, co-sponsored legislation last year to make the tax credit permanent but voiced concern after learning of ProPublica’s findings. “These agencies could be scamming the system using American tax payer dollars,” he said in an email. “It’s unacceptable, and my office will be looking into this to ensure the WOTC program is doing what Congress intended it to do: supporting workers and helping them secure good, long-term employment opportunities.”

A failed program resurrected

The origins of the WOTC can be traced to the mid-1970s, when the jobless rate for young Black workers seemed stuck near 40%. The Carter administration set out to tackle what it called the “structural unemployment” of marginalized workers with public works projects and job training programs. But lawmakers balked at the cost and decried public programs for leading to temporary and dead-end jobs. The private sector, one prominent Democratic senator said, was more likely to lead to “further advancement and to a permanent job.”

The Targeted Jobs Tax Credit, which would form the basis of the WOTC, became law in 1978.

It failed spectacularly.

In 1994, Labor Department auditors found that most of the subsidized jobs lasted less than a year and that 92% of participating workers would have been hired even without the credit. The inspector general testified that “for the most part, the only ones benefiting” from the program were employers and he called on Congress to end the program.

The next year, a labor historian concluded in a research paper that “interest groups distorted the credit into a windfall for businesses that hire large numbers of low wage workers” and spawned “a whole industry” of consultants who processed the tax credits for employers.

Another industry was also poised to benefit. Around the time that lawmakers were devising the tax credit, lobbyists for the staffing industry were convincing state legislators to deregulate employment agencies, which had long been associated with exploitation, said George Gonos, a former sociology professor at the State University of New York at Potsdam who has spent his career studying the temp industry. One way lobbyists did this was by making staffing agencies — not the clients to whom they sent workers — the “bona fide legal employers” of temp workers.

“Not only could the employers get people through temp staffing agencies with lower wages and without rights, but the temp agency could also collect subsidies on the side for everyone they placed,” Gonos said. “Man, what a racket.”

Kelly Services and two other staffing agencies helped found a lobbying group dedicated to preserving and expanding the tax credit. Within months of the credit’s expiration in 1994, Kelly Services and others began asking lawmakers to revive it.

They found their opportunity in welfare reform.

In 1995, lawmakers resurrected the tax credit under a new name: WOTC. As Congress planned to require welfare recipients to work to receive benefits, lawmakers hoped that a new version of the credit might drive demand for those workers.

One of the WOTC’s architects, Rep. Amo Houghton, R-N.Y., bemoaned how many people left welfare only to find temp work. “They move into a job and out of a job, into a job and out of job,” he said. The new credit, he told colleagues, would ensure people become permanent employees.

But Congress tweaked the old program only slightly: Employers would now need to confirm that the job applicant was eligible for the program before hiring and would have to employ workers longer to receive the maximum credit. The minimum credit was still available after just three weeks.

Many of the old problems persisted. Echoing past criticism, the Government Accountability Office noted that the program mostly benefited billion-dollar corporations with a large number of low-skilled workers and high turnover. A 2001 report showed that only 17% of employees remained at their jobs long enough to earn more than $6,000. That report also included a survey in which a majority of participating employers said applicants’ eligibility had no effect on their chances of being hired.

Such warning signs have had little impact. In April, the White House featured the tax credit prominently in its “strategy to expand employment opportunities for formerly incarcerated persons.”

William Signer, who worked on tax issues for former Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., and now lobbies for the WOTC on behalf of payroll and tax credit processing firms, said the WOTC is beneficial “regardless of whether the first job results in permanent employment.”

Though Houghton died in 2020, Bob Van Wicklin, who was Houghton’s legislative director when WOTC passed, said of the subsidized workers that “Amo definitely would have intended for them to get a full-time job — not a temp job.”

Rangel, who championed the WOTC alongside Houghton, said in an interview that he’s proud of the tax incentive. But he acknowledged the program has shortcomings and said using the tax system to address economic hardship was a legislative compromise.

“The tax system should not be used for social benefits,” he said. “There should be permanent programs providing for the needs that people have.”

Sanctions and subsidies

Temporary staffing agencies might seem like an odd fit for a program designed to incentivize permanent employment. By definition, temp agencies exist to provide short-term help. They typically pay workers directly and earn money by charging companies an average markup of 41% to cover workers’ compensation insurance, overhead and profits.

While some workers, like travel nurses, earn a premium in exchange for unpredictable assignments, blue-collar temps typically earn less than conventional employees and rarely receive paid days off, health insurance or retirement benefits.

To find people willing to put up with those conditions, temp agencies “need exploitable disposable labor,” said Gretchen Purser, a Syracuse University sociologist who worked at day-labor agencies as research for her dissertation. People with criminal records “experience a whole bunch of barriers in the labor market that lead them to these jobs as a last resort.”

Mario Alvarez, a former branch manager at a PeopleReady franchise near Boston, said most of his workers were homeless, struggled with addiction or had criminal records. He described constant pressure from PeopleReady to cut costs “any way possible.” “The unfortunate part is that our product are people, no matter how you slice it,” he said. “I’m not selling desks. I’m not selling TVs. I’m selling people’s hard work.”

Comparing temp agency safety records is difficult because when temp workers are hurt on the job, those injuries are often attributed to the company where they occurred, not to the temp agency employing the worker. That makes calculating injury rates nearly impossible. But records from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration show that many of the temp agencies with the greatest number of severe injury reports in recent years are also among the companies that have benefited most from the tax credit, according to our data.

ProPublica requested WOTC data from all 50 states and received nearly 700,000 records from nine of them — Virginia, Arizona, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Wisconsin, Colorado, Kentucky, Rhode Island and North Dakota — which together represent 14% of the U.S. population.

Of the 10 temp agencies approved for the most tax credits, seven firms — including Express, TrueBlue and Kelly Services — were also among the agencies with the most reports of severe injuries, according to the OSHA data. In addition, the three companies approved for the most credits for employing people with felony records — Express, EmployBridge and TrueBlue — have each been cited for dozens of serious safety violations and wage infractions in the past two decades.

“Companies use temp staffing agencies to distance themselves from their workers and to avoid accountability as an employer,” said Laura Padin, an attorney at the National Employment Law Project. “Because they can be fired from an assignment at a moment’s notice, it is very hard for workers to speak out and enforce their rights.”

Winchell of TrueBlue argued that it wasn’t fair to compare agencies using OSHA or wage data because it doesn’t account for differences in the number of workers each agency assigns or the types of work environments they send people to. “Each year, we connect approximately 615,000 people with essential work and place their safety and fair treatment above all else,” she said.

Kelly Services spokesperson Christian Taske also noted these gaps in the data. He said Kelly Services assesses companies’ work environments before sending them temps and sometimes assigns safety managers to sites. “The health and safety of our temporary and contract workers is an important priority for Kelly and host employers,” Taske said.

In 2013, ProPublica found that temp workers faced a significantly greater risk of getting injured on the job than regular employees and, in at least four states, were three times as likely to suffer amputations.

Since then, the Labor Department has recorded hundreds of severe injuries among temp workers and ordered staffing agencies to pay $20 million in unpaid wages. But while one part of the federal government sanctioned the companies, another provided them subsidies.

No temp firm had more employees certified for the WOTC in the states ProPublica analyzed than EmployBridge, which calls itself the nation’s largest industrial staffing firm. But according to federal lawsuits, the company has also failed to protect some workers from injuries and sexual harassment.

Dustin Petrey said in a lawsuit that he suffered a life-changing injury after EmployBridge subsidiary ResourceMFG failed to train him for work at a Tennessee plastics factory. In an interview, he said he was vacuuming debris from a hopper outside the plant in 2014 when a coworker flipped a switch inside. Before the 19-year-old could comprehend what had happened, an auger had severed his right arm. Petrey said he’d passed a simple safety test at the temp agency, but that he’d never received on-the-job training — or even heard of “lockout, tag-out,” a standard safety protocol for securing machinery.

Larissa Overfield said that during her 14 months with EmployBridge subsidiary EmploymentPlus in Kentucky, two coworkers at the auto parts factory where she worked repeatedly asked her for sex, according to an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint and federal lawsuit. She said the men touched intimate parts of her body and threw things on the floor and told her to pick them up. Eventually, Overfield told a temp agency supervisor what was happening. The next day, she said, she was fired. When Overfield asked for another placement, the agency told her it didn’t have any other work available. “They completely turned their backs on me,” she said.

EmployBridge declined to comment. The company denied Overfield’s allegations in court. She said she received a settlement and her case was dismissed. EmployBridge was dismissed from Petrey’s lawsuit because it was already paying him workers’ comp benefits for his injury. Malara of the American Staffing Association said health and safety are a priority. “Over the past eight years,” he said, “ASA and our members have worked with federal stakeholders to ensure the increased safety of temporary and contract workers.”

A common argument for temp agencies’ participation in the WOTC program is that temp jobs will act as stepping stones to permanent employment. But according to many economists, such outcomes are the exception. “There’s no evidence to support the idea that temp work is leading to lots of direct-hire jobs,” said David Autor, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In the early 2000s, Autor and economist Susan Houseman analyzed a trove of data on the employment outcomes of Detroit welfare recipients who had been assigned to either temp agency jobs or “direct-hire” jobs, meaning positions where workers are hired by the company they report to rather than through a temp agency. The researchers found that temp jobs failed to improve outcomes and may even have resulted in lower earnings in the long term. “These results cast doubt on whether the widespread use of temporary-help agencies by government programs is a sound public investment,” the economists concluded.

In studies published from 2003 to 2011, Hamersma of Syracuse found that jobs subsidized by the WOTC typically lasted only nine months and that temp jobs were even shorter. While she concluded the WOTC may boost welfare and food stamp recipients’ earnings initially, she said, “I didn’t find evidence it helped them get or keep jobs in the long run.”

One possible reason: Many companies rely on outside firms to process the credits, and managers at temp agencies and retailers told ProPublica they weren’t aware which workers were eligible when making hiring decisions.

That “actually makes it a terrible incentive, because nobody’s responding to it,” Autor said. It’s like hiring someone and then getting a notification from the IRS saying, “‘Oh, congratulations, he’s a felon. Here’s your 2,400 bucks.’”

Congress paid little attention to Hamersma’s research, but staffing agencies and tax credit processing companies succeeded in circulating papers heralding the credit among lawmakers. Two papers written by Peter Cappelli, a prominent business professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, said the WOTC was “not a windfall” for employers and estimated the credits provide a substantial return on investment for taxpayers. What the industry representatives didn’t disclose was that the papers were unpublished and had been paid for by lobbyists.

Cappelli said the attorney who offered to pay for his research didn’t say who was funding it or what it would be used for. If he were to redo the report, Cappelli said, he would make some changes, but he stood by the reports on the whole. “The questions that we’re asking here are about estimating the value of WOTC,” he said. “These things are not so simple to do.”

In the decade since, Congress has voted to extend the tax credit four times.

Reinforcing barriers

One of the main problems with the WOTC, its critics say, is that it doesn’t address the many forces that create barriers for marginalized workers.

DeMond Bush is exactly the kind of person the WOTC was designed to help. He survived abuse as a child, became homeless at 14 and started selling drugs as a teenager. Then in 1995, when he was 21, a jury convicted him of robbery, kidnapping and manslaughter. Another Black man had been convicted in the high-profile murder of a white librarian in Frankfort, Kentucky, and prosecutors argued that Bush had helped him. Witnesses said they’d seen the men together in the days following the killing, jailhouse informants testified that Bush confessed to them and — in the time before DNA testing — a hair found in the victim’s car was determined to match Bush’s hair using forensic methods now considered inaccurate.

Bush insists he was in another city when the crime occurred and maintains his innocence, noting that the primary suspect in the case, who initially alleged that Bush was involved, has since retracted his statement. And over the more than 21 years Bush spent in Kentucky prisons, he earned three associate’s degrees in arts, science and skilled trades, a diploma from a seminary and two certificates in carpentry from a community college. He hoped that, when he got out, the carpentry training might help him land a union job.

Instead, Bush found himself picking up union workers’ trash. A day-labor agency had sent him to a sports arena to clean up after a union event.

Each day, Bush spent hours waiting at the agency for a chance to earn $9 to $10 an hour performing manual labor. The seats smelled like urine, he recalled, and cold air blew in through a hole in the door where a doorknob should have been.

“Beggars can’t be choosy,” Bush said. “And they know that, right?”

After more than two decades behind bars, Bush said he needed a lot more than a job. He needed housing, mental health services and time to adjust. But all he had access to were temp jobs. “You got to eat immediately,” he said. “I didn’t feel like there were any other options for me.”

Workers with criminal records who spoke with ProPublica listed dozens of reasons that temp jobs were their first and often only jobs after leaving prison. While failed background checks and the need for food and rent were common themes, longstanding criminal justice policies were often equally powerful factors.

Workers required to live at halfway houses said strict curfews ruled out the night shift at nearby factories and warehouses — often the only decent-paying direct-hire jobs available to them.

For most workers, employment was a condition of their parole. One parole office in New Hampshire provided ProPublica with a list of employers it gives to people. The first nine employers were temp agencies.

Workers also described owing court fines, parole fees or restitution. Some said the disruption caused by midweek parole meetings cost them jobs with conventional employers.

The rules governing federal grants to organizations that serve formerly incarcerated people also promote temp work. To receive federal grants for employment services, reentry nonprofits must show high job-placement rates. Because they needn’t specify whether those jobs are permanent positions or if they include benefits, some advocates say, nonprofits rely on temp agencies to keep their numbers up.

The U.S. Employment Service, a federal program that provides assistance to job seekers at centers across the country, once prohibited counselors from referring workers to employment agencies. But today its website tells people with felony records that “employment agencies can be a good path to a job” and recommends that applicants print out a brochure about the WOTC to present to employers.

Temp agencies, meanwhile, sometimes deter their client companies from hiring workers directly, charging penalty fees if companies want to bring someone on before their contract ends — and sometimes for up to a year after the contract expires.

For Courtney Decker, a 30-year-old Louisville resident whose battle with addiction led to stints behind bars, there was yet another reason she felt she had no choice but to take temp work. Because her mother had custody of Decker’s daughter, Decker owed child support. In Kentucky, missing just a few months of payments is a jailable offense. “If I did not pay my child support, I would have ended up getting locked up again,” she said.

As a child, Decker had wanted to be a police officer, like the one who let her pick out candy from the trunk of the cruiser he parked in her neighborhood. She was a junior ROTC cadet in high school and planned to join the Army. She dreamed of a career helping people and an income that would provide more than the instant ramen noodles with chopped hot dogs she and her four younger siblings ate while their single mom was at work.

Instead, Decker spent her 20s bouncing between prison and short-term jobs, grabbing hold of sobriety and then turning back to drugs and alcohol. Decker longed for a stable, full-time job — something that would allow her to pay for her own apartment and help support her young daughter.

Instead, Decker said, she woke up each morning on a friend’s couch, laced up her steel-toe boots and made her way in the predawn darkness to the same day-labor agency Bush had used. “You’d have to get there at like 4 in the morning,” she said. “If you was late, you didn’t get assigned anywhere.”

But none of the temp jobs led to lasting employment. Once, Decker said, a temp agency sent her to a nearby warehouse with the promise of a permanent job and benefits after 90 days. But the job ended the same way Bush’s did. After two months, Decker said, the company ran a background check and told her she could stay on as a temp but couldn’t become a permanent employee.

Soon after, Decker relapsed, her probation was revoked and she returned to prison. Despite the outcome, the temp agency was still eligible to collect tax credits for Decker’s work.

“It doesn’t make sense that they’re getting this tax credit and it’s not going towards full-time employment,” she said.

More Than “Worker Bees”

Bush and Decker had little in common before leaving prison. Yet after they were released, their journeys were remarkably similar. Both were attracted by temp agencies’ promises of permanent employment only to have their hopes dashed. Both draw a direct line between that disappointment and their return to prison. And both credit a nonprofit — not the private sector — with giving them a second chance.

After Bush left prison at the end of 2019, he vowed he’d never go back to a temp agency. This time, he found his way to a reentry services program run by Goodwill Industries of Kentucky. Bush enrolled in a class there, then landed a full-time job with the nonprofit, coaching men and women like him. “It drastically changed my life,” he said. It gave him newfound confidence and, eventually, a contact he made through Goodwill helped him get union construction work, earning more than $20 an hour.

Likewise, Decker’s path after prison led her to Goodwill, which helped her find sober housing and gave her bus vouchers. Then, a career coach connected her with a full-time job directing traffic around construction. She stayed in that job for two years. The work was dependable and paid enough for Decker to move into her own apartment and start thinking about what she really wanted in a career: to help people like her. She applied for a job as a peer-support specialist at Goodwill.

Decker said Goodwill’s program is effective because the only roles that it considers to be acceptable placements are direct-hire jobs with benefits, an unusual policy among similar providers. If taxpayers are going to subsidize jobs for people like her, Decker said, these are the standards that employers receiving the WOTC should have to meet.

Labor advocates argue the same. “I think we need to restructure the WOTC so that we’re not just giving employers a subsidy for providing a job, no matter how low-quality that job is,” said Padin of the National Employment Law Project. She suggested increasing the minimum tenure from three weeks to a year, creating a wage floor greater than the federal minimum wage and requiring employers to provide training or opportunities for advancement to receive the subsidy.

Others say policymakers’ emphasis on immediate employment after prison is part of the problem.

If lawmakers want evidence-based programs with a good return on investment, said Autor, they should try six-to-12-month vocational training programs. But unlike tax credits, he warned, “the upfront costs are very substantial.”

James of the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls said people need resources after the “massive disruption, economic disruption and familial disruption” of incarceration. Her organization is in the second year of a project providing $500 a month, no strings attached, to women transitioning home from prison. James said recipients have used the funds for groceries, rent, gas and, in one case, graduation clothes for a grandson. While James’ program hasn’t produced data yet, studies show similar programs reduce crime rates, increase employment and improve mental health outcomes.

On a recent Saturday, Bush sat at a picnic table in Louisville’s Central Park, leaned into the summer sun and described the future he imagines for himself. In the evenings over the last year, Bush has been working toward a master’s degree in social work at a local university. Someday, he said, he hopes to use those skills to start his own nonprofit.

The way Bush sees it, most reentry programs, including WOTC, do little more than teach people leaving prison to become “worker bees,” prepared for little else but low-wage labor. Instead, Bush wants to help them envision the future they want, cope with their transition home and develop the skills and community they need to succeed. If given a chance, formerly incarcerated people like him can build rewarding careers and become community leaders, Bush said. “We have it in us to do it.”


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