The founders of Nehemiah Manufacturing Co. in Cincinnati always wanted to bring opportunities to a floundering part of town.

They ended up hiring workers mostly from a particular subset of the population: people with criminal records. Ex-cons account for about eighty percent of Nehemiah’s workforce.

The Wall Street Journal had an inspiring piece on Nehemiah in Saturday’s paper (“The Company of Second Chances”). I urge you to read it, if you missed it.

This does not, incidentally, bear on the “ban the box” movement, which calls for the elimination of any question on application forms of whether the applicant has a criminal background. Nehemiah knowingly and willingly hires people with criminal pasts. This is a choice the owners of the company made.

In a tight economy, a number of companies are willing to hire people with records, and perhaps the experiences of Nehemiah can light the way.

Nehemiah also came to realize that there are substantial challenges to hiring people with criminal records. Some workers struggled with addiction and homelessness.

The company enlisted, at a financial loss, the services of a social worker.

And Nehemiah's employess do need some extra help if they are to establish themselves as solid citizens: 

“They were thinking that providing jobs would fix things,” said Dana Merida, who initially provided social services for Nehemiah employees a few hours a week and now heads the company’s three-person social-service team. But some of them would take a break and never come back, she said. “If you are homeless, couch surfing, how productive can you be?”

Working at Nehemiah, however, does help people turn their lives around:

Karrie Norgren, a 26-year-old recovering heroin addict, said she wasn’t reliable when she first joined Nehemiah in 2018. “Old habits were starting to form,” she said. But “something clicked” after she missed three days of work and Ms. Merida sat her down for a chat. She now runs a small team of employees as a line captain.

Ms. Merida said that Ms. Norgren would have lost her job if she hadn’t shown more commitment to changing her path. Applicants must sign a waiver giving the company the right to contact agencies that help them (such as by providing housing or drug treatment).

Nehemiah may hire ex-cons, but they look for a willingness to work to improve one’s life before hiring. Applicants must sign a waiver giving the company the right to contact agencies that help them (such as by providing housing or drug treatment).

One of the most inspiring stories in the article concerned Rayshun Holt, who spent two decades in prison for killing a friend in what he claimed as a tussle over a gun. In prison, Holt reconnected with his religious faith and took classes on how to improve his life. Still, he faced hurdles in making a new life:

Released in 2016 with $96 in his pocket, he said, “I was filled with hope and overwhelmed by fear.” His first job was in a fast-food restaurant specializing in chicken fingers. “I was the oldest person there and the most enthusiastic. It was the first time in my life I was earning an honest check,” he said.

But he struggled to find steady work with decent pay. Nehemiah hired him as a second-shift supervisor at $19 an hour.

Holt is now Nehemiah’s commercialization coordinator, “responsible for taking new products and product improvements from concept to market.”

Nehemian seems to be a highly successful program. It started because individuals cared, and wanted to do something to help others, not because government mandated a new program. It can take direct personal actions in a way that government cannot.

It is only towards the end of the story that we find out what motivates the owners of Nehemiah: their Christian beliefs.

In other words, Nehemiah represents the sense of community, which is sometimes based on religious beliefs, that the French writer  Alexis de Tocqueville stressed as a hallmark of American civic life.