Youths can have great intentions about improving their ability to get a job. If they don’t know how to get out of the starting blocks or what direction to go once they do, it can be challenging.

That’s how the Promoting Readiness of Minors in Supplemental Security Income, also known as Promise grants, can help.

Wisconsin Promise is a five-year, $32.5 million U.S. Department of Education grant that provides services to youths and their families who receive Social Security disability benefits with the goal of increasing the education, career and income outcomes of children with special needs receiving federal Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and their families.

Wisconsin Promise will enroll 2,000 youths (ages 14-16) receiving SSI and their families, according to Ellie Hartman, project manager.

Families who participate in the study will receive $30 in gift cards. A computer will assign participants to one of two groups based on chance, like a lottery.

As part of the program, 1,000 youths and their families will be randomly assigned to the “program group,” enrolled in Division of Vocational Rehabilitation services, and offered a variety of activities including exploring career and education opportunities, help finding a job that matches their interests and abilities, help achieving education goals, and counseling on benefits and personal finances. Youths and their families in the program group will receive a computer tablet (a choice between two options) and data plan. Support and services will also be available to family members.

Also, 1,000 youths and their families will be in the “usual services group” and continue to access the typically available services and supports.

Services provided through Wisconsin Promise can help youth participants achieve better education and career outcomes, including graduating from high school ready for college and a career, completing post-secondary education and job training; and obtaining competitive employment in an integrated setting.

As a result, youth participants can achieve their goals and move toward a stronger financial future.

The grant focuses on this group, Hartman said, because its members’ employment income is generally less compared to other populations. “They have a very low employment rate and very low income,” she said. “Many often live a life of poverty.”

Getting families involved, she added, is essential to defeat a generational poverty cycle. “This is really to help break that cycle. If you only focus on the youth and you don’t look at the whole family, it is difficult to break that cycle.”

Hartman said 6,000 state youths meet the criteria, and they hope to enroll 2,000 into the program.

And if 100 participants can get their careers on track, over their working lifetime, the cost of the grant and more will be recouped by SSI program savings, according to state Department of Workforce Development calculations.

But it’s not just about saving money. It’s about giving the target group the chance to build careers where they can contribute and make a difference.

DWD communications director John Dipko noted the offered services will increase participants’ ability to land a job. Social skills and self-advocacy will be among topics covered in an effort to “harness all the good things they can bring to the work environment,” Dipko noted.

Hartman said the program’s target group is an untapped labor force that can help employers. “People with disabilities aren’t traditionally thought of as being an asset to a business,” she said. “We’ve seen time and time again that they are. So they can be used to provide the business a better bottom line.”

The DWD is trying to get the word out about the program so eligible teens and their families will participate. “One of our key goals is to enroll individuals,” said Dipko, who said 48 participants were enrolled in the program as of Thursday.

Van Enkenvoort is Wisconsin State Journal business editor.

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