Jobs, justice and peace. Have three themes ever been so intimately intertwined since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., championed this tri-partite campaign in his 1967 March on Washington?
Unemployment is ravaging the country, especially among urban minorities. Yet Congress has yet to put forward a comprehensive jobs plan to create employment. We’re still fighting two wars and garrisoning troops in Europe and Japan as the jobless rate soars at home. Debt reduction is still a priority over job creation.
The current economic downturn has put the brakes on economic progress for most of the American working class. They shared in widespread growth during the 1990s, but have been falling behind during the latest recession.
The pain has been uneven and most punishing in the inner city and among the young. For white men and women, the jobless rate for those 20 years and older was around 8 percent as of July. For white teenagers (age 16 to 19), the rate was 23 percent.
Unemployment for African-American adults is twice as high as white adults at 16 percent. For African-American teenagers, the rate soars to nearly 40 percent.
Much of the reason that decent-paying jobs have evaporated is that inner cities and suburbs have been de-populated and businesses have left — many of them to wealthy suburbs or overseas. Unionized industrial jobs have also fled.
There’s been great progress made since the end of World War II to create a broad base of high-paying jobs, although the bulk of those positions were in unionized manufacturing companies, nearly all of which have cut back, shut down or outsourced. High-wage jobs left urban manufacturing districts to be replaced by low-wage service jobs or occupational deserts.
There is a pernicious poverty in places where there’s no job growth and few opportunities. Go to any old industrial city like Chicago, Cleveland or Detroit to see what an occupational desert looks like.
Where once there were large plants employing thousands of workers, there are now empty lots. South Chicago and Chicago Heights, where I first started my journalism career, used to be thriving places, employing tens of thousands.
Men I knew like Frank Lumpkin came up from the Jim Crow south to northern cities like Chicago to land decent-paying jobs and to raise families. The mill in which he toiled shut down 30 years ago. Nothing has replaced it. Ironically, one abandoned Chicago steel mill site became a temporary venue for a recent Dave Matthews concert.
Being stuck in low-paying jobs is a social curse. It’s a sign that upward mobility hasn’t been extended to everyone. What’s to blame? Is it the failure of our educational system? Congress? State governments? Overpaying CEOs and Wall Street traders?
Instead of blasting the usual suspects, let’s take a hard look at our educational system. Somehow public schools aren’t guiding graduates to the right kinds of skills needed for lucrative, in-demand jobs such as biomedical engineers, network analysts, financial examiners, biophysicists and biochemists.
The top-paying jobs require extensive training and higher education. Almost half of the very high-paying occupations forecast to grow the most by the U.S. Department of Labor require college.
One-third of those fast-growing job categories require little training and are categorized as low or very-low paying: Home health aides, skin-care specialists, physical therapist aides, veterinary technicians, dental/medical assistants and fitness trainers. But these new service jobs often fall short because they won’t guarantee new workers living wages.
Not all of the current jobless situation can be attributed to a mismatch between needed skills and openings, though.
The “underemployment rate” — those who had to take part-time work because they couldn’t find full-time positions — more than doubled from 2007 through March, 2011, among those with bachelor’s degrees, reported the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank affiliated with organized labor.
“The fact that the economy’s best-educated workers have seen a more than doubling in their underemployment rate is just one of many pieces of evidence suggesting that the anemic recovery reflects a general lack of job growth rather than a deficit of skills or education among its workers,” the Institute stated.
Cutting more government programs will only create more unemployment. Any job stimulus plan has to marry training and education not only with present needs, but the job market of the future. How to best accomplish this?
We have diseases to cure, rebuilding to do and energy needs to meet. An infrastructure bank is a start.
A sustained national program to create clean energy technologies, a new generation of long-term storage batteries, biomedical research and modernizing the electrical grid is another approach. Despite these immediate needs, Washington is helping the wrong people.
As Princeton professor Cornel West wrote in a recent New York Times piece, referring to Washington’s side-stepping of Dr. King’s prophetic legacy:
“Instead of articulating a radical democratic vision and fighting for homeowners, workers and poor people in the form of mortgage relief, jobs and investment in education, infrastructure and housing, the administration gave us bailouts for banks, record profits for Wall Street and giant budget cuts on the backs of the vulnerable.”
If job opportunities don’t materialize on a mass scale, it won’t matter how much government spending is cut. Government assistance will then have to expand to accommodate a burgeoning, restive underclass.
Leadership from everyone in the political spectrum is lacking and most acutely from the Congress and White House. Washington needs to reconnect to the need to champion universal civil and economic justice.
Or, as Dr. King so eloquently put it, “Let us be dissatisfied until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort from the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice.”