CHICAGO — George Outland had just one requirement when applying for a job: It had to be at a business that didn't check his criminal background or didn't care.
After Outland served three years in prison for burglary, he could land only short-term work moving furniture or delivering food.
It's difficult for ex-felons to find steady jobs even in good economic times, with unemployment rates sometimes as high as 75 percent one year out of prison. During the worst recession in a quarter century, it can be almost impossible.
"During worse times, employers are unwilling to take chance on anyone who seems at all risky," said Devah Pager, an assistant sociology professor at Princeton University.
Groups trying to change that see hope in a $50 million project tucked into Congress' budget blueprint that aims to prove that spending money on the hardest to employ, including ex-offenders, is as worthwhile as helping the middle class.
Advocates say there are good reasons for employers and communities to help former felons re-enter the work force. With an estimated 650,000 people released from prison each year nationwide, helping them get jobs can reduce the chances that they will be jailed again or need welfare.
U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald tells businesses in Chicago that hiring ex-felons is one of the best ways to reduce violent crime because it erases the reason behind many offenses. It can also provide an economic boost to some of the nation's poorest neighborhoods.
"Those who did not have income before now do, and they need to spend all of it to meet their basic needs," said Amy Rynell, executive director of the Chicago-based Social IMPACT Research Center.
Though no statistics are available tracking the ability of ex-felons to get jobs in the current recession, advocates say it's certainly harder than usual.
So they're stepping up efforts to persuade lawmakers and businesses to support jobs programs for them. Among the most successful have been "transitional" plans that findbusinesses, communities or organizations willing to hire ex-felons, usually for a few months, while they learn basic job skills.
Those types of programs are the ones targeted by the federal project, which would study how well they help the chronically unemployed, including ex-felons.
Outland began working full time this summer for a property management company through a transitional program run by the Chicago nonprofit Heartland Human Care Services. He's paid $8 an hour to answer phones, enter data and learn to help manage accounts. He's making ends meet with just a few dollars left over each month, but at age 50 feels for the first time as if he has a shot at a real career.
"I would love to stay in the real estate field," Outland said after distributing parking passes to tenants at an apartment building. "I love it now; I actually love it ... it makes me feel important."
Outland's boss said many ex-felons are eager to change their lives but need help.
"If they have a history of theft, I'm not necessarily going to put them in a building with keys," said Tifanni Sterdivant, managing director of Corner Office Management. "A lot of them are vocal about not wanting to go back to certain neighborhoods. They want a new life, a new start."
First they must learn "soft skills," like how to dress appropriately, why it's important to call if they're going to miss work and why they need to listen to a boss. Some also have other issues that can get in the way: substance abuse and lack of stable housing and child care.
The Safer Foundation, a Chicago-based nonprofit, finds employers willing to hire ex-felons outright and provides a case manager. Officials there say 13 percent of ex-felons who received support and employment services returned to prison or jail after three years, compared to 52 percent for Illinois ex-offenders overall.
In New York, the Center for Employment Opportunities assembles work crews of five to 10 ex-felons who work under contract to perform maintenance and repair services for state or city agencies.
A study of that program found that the odds of ex-felons getting a job were 40-50 percentage points greater if they were in a transitional program than receiving just resume and interviewing tips, said Dan Bloom, a researcher with the New York-based nonprofit MDRC. And their odds of going back to jail or prison within two years was 6 percentage points less.
"That may not sound enormous, but the cost of incarceration is extremely high," Bloom said. "Nobody wins if you have huge numbers of guys coming out of prison and not working."
Advocates say those in transitional programs aren't getting jobs sought by other laid-off workers. The goal is to give them skills so they eventually can compete for higher-paying jobs.
Juan Cruz, 37, who served 14 years in prison for attempted murder after shooting an undercover police officer during a drug deal, now works for Safer managing a crew of ex-felons doing landscaping work for the city of Chicago. He said the jobs are changing their lives.
"They feel proud to have their chaps on, their helmet, their work crew vest," said Cruz. "People in the neighborhood see that and they respect it so much."