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 Mr. 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 a 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 worthwhile.
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.
Though no statistics are available yet 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 parolees. Among the most successful have been "transitional" plans that find businesses, communities or organizations willing to hire ex-felons, usually for a few months, while they learn basic job skills.
Mr. 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, but at age 50 he 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," Mr. Outland said. "I love it now; I actually love it ... it makes me feel important."