On Sunday the New York Times‘s cover story was about Obama’s lack of progress in tackling one of the biggest issues that drove him into politics – solving poverty in desperately poor neighborhoods like Chicago’s Roseland, where Obama got his start as a community organizer. After doing a pretty decent job of describing life in Roseland and the president’s trajectory since, the article concludes:
What Roseland needs is not necessarily a big new infusion of federal dollars. What it needs more than anything else is an antipoverty strategy that is much more comprehensive and ambitious than what exists there today, an approach that focuses on improving outcomes for children from birth through adolescence…
Finding a new approach won’t be easy, of course. Back in Anacostia in 2007, Obama acknowledged that “changing the odds in our cities will require humility in what we can accomplish and patience with our progress.” But real change would take more than that, he said: “Most importantly, it will require the sustained commitment of the president of the United States.”
I really, really don’t understand why in 2012, in the middle of the worst economic crisis we’ve had since the Great Depression, moderate do-gooders still don’t get it. Yes, poverty is complicated. But getting folks out of poverty isn’t freaking rocket science. First and foremost, it takes lots and lots of good jobs.
How can I be so sure? Take what happened to black unemployment – not a bad proxy for what’s happening to poor folks overall – during the 1990s tech bubble.
The tight labor market of the late 1990s was very beneficial for African Americans. The black unemployment rate fell from 18% in the 1981-82 recession, to around 13% in the early 1990s, to below 7% in 1999 and 2000, the lowest black unemployment rate on record.
In a span of a few years, black unemployment was cut in half. Was it because we had suddenly cured the “pathologies” of poor neighborhoods? No. It was because as hundreds of tech companies scrambled to hire enough workers, the labor market got tighter.
What was particularly striking about this dramatic drop in black unemployment was that it happened without aggressive action. Employers in Silicon Valley incessantly wined about how hard it was to find employees – and how much they had to pay to get them and keep them. And yet there was Oakland, right across the bridge from Silicon Valley, with tons of young people without jobs. Silicon Valley was drenched in money, and yet no one was interested in investing in the dozens of community groups and community colleges who knew how to give these young people many of the skills Silicon Valley desperately needed. As a Bay Area lefty working in tech, it infuriated me. But in spite of this obscene neglect, the tight labor market was enough to lift an awful lot of folks out of poverty – at least while the bubble lasted.
So if we could cut black employmennt in half when we weren’t trying, what could we do if we were trying?
Suppose we said that for 11 years – as long as we’ve been in Afghanistan – we’re going to create plenty of good jobs targeted at folks who live in high poverty areas?
We wouldn’t want to pay for these jobs forever. In the long run, having the government directly create lots of jobs isn’t very efficient. We could approach it with the same kind of mindset the Japanese had towards their auto industry before it took off – massive government intervention will ruthlessly aimed at a very specific goal. In our case, we’d want to go in with a plan to build up for six years followed by a five-year build down and transition.
The jobs we’d temporarily create wouldn’t be makework; we’ve got lots of needs we could use them to address. The most obvious is combatting climate change: painting rooftops white, retrofitting buildings to be energy efficient, planting trees – which will also help cool down cities – installing solar panels, etc. There’s also plenty we could do to increase community resilience in the face of climate change, much of which requires a mix of low-skill and high-skill jobs. And we could create pools of startup capital for sustainable coops, using the very successful Cleveland -based Evergreen Cooperatives as an example.
And as we were doing so, we could provide job training, including wraparound services using the Pinderhughes model, provides
• Case management and follow up—Each student is managed by a mentor, who personally tracks the student’s progress through the program and follows up with the alumni for up to 12 months after graduation and placement into the first green job.
• Applied basic skills—Reading and math classes accompany specific technical training that is constructive and relevant to their chosen career path.
• Job readiness, life skills and financial literacy skills—Training in a variety of professional and personal skills is provided, helping students overcome institutional and internalized barriers associated with race and gender inequities.
• Critical thinking and curriculum in environmental and social justice—Students learn to develop their skills to find 21st century employment and understand their role in the large movement to sustain the planet and its peoples—an awareness that contributes to satisfaction with one’s profession.
• Stipends, housing vouchers, paid internships, childcare, training centers accessible by public transportation
Like Tough, I think comprehensive services are good idea. But if good jobs aren’t the driving force of our plans for tackling poverty, we don’t have much chance for success. As an Applied Research Center report points out,
. Since the 1980s, much of the federal funding for workforce development has supported training over actual job creation. For example, under the Job Training Partnership Act (JTPA), training is funded but actual jobs are not. Therefore, young and adult workers graduate from training without a job awaiting them. In addition, training programs and providers haven’t been linked to union apprenticeship programs. As a result, graduates have been unable to secure specialized skill jobs or the pathways they provide into the middle cla
Would this strategy get rid of all poverty? Maybe not. But it could make a much bigger dent than anything else we’ve tried.
At the end of his article, Tough worries:
It’s a challenge for any politician in troubled economic times: how do you persuade voters to devote tax dollars to help the truly disadvantaged when the middle class is feeling disadvantaged itself? The problem is that universal economic progress will not help those in deep poverty — or at least not enough. Places like Roseland need specific, targeted, effective help if they are ever going to change.
That, in a nutshell, is what’s wrong with the approach that people like Tough take. If targeted efforts aren’t tied to “universal economic progress,” they’re dead in the water. The only way we could build the political coalition needed to break poverty’s back is if speaks to the needs of the 99%.
But the problem we’ve had so far isn’t that we’ve adopted programs to create universal economic progress that haven’t helped the poor. The problem is that we haven’t had programs to create universal economic progress. Giving the bottom 15% more help while we’re trying to help the 99% isn’t that hard a sell (especially if you tell folks we’re not creating more welfare, we’re giving people who’re willing and able to work hard a real chance at a good job and a career). The Tough sell is agreeing we need to help the 99%.