In the lobby of STRIVE, an employment-training program in East Harlem, the messages are clear, stated in a bold, black font on posters that greet the overwhelmingly black and Latino clients as they get off the elevator and enter the lobby: “Please Remove Your Hats.” “Please Do Not Wear Pants Below the Waist.” “Please Do Not Wear Headphones.”
Inside the classroom, says STRIVE’s chief operating officer, Angelo Rivera, attitudes are a primary target. “You have to inflict some kind of discomfort and pain so they can own up to what their issues are,” he says. “That whole attitudinal piece will make you or break you in the world of work.”
But in a month of instruction, STRIVE students also get two days on civics. They learn the story of Emmett Till. They hear the words of Malcolm X. The students’ personal struggles get placed within a context of historical, structural racism. The aim, he says, is to get his clients—many of whom were formerly incarcerated or on public assistance—to say to themselves, “Now I know why I’m so pissed off.” It’s an interesting combination: attacking bad attitudes among the jobless while acknowledging the primary role of racism in their plight. For Maria Ortiz, STRIVE’s director of training, the debate over whether cultural factors or structural ones are to blame for black joblessness misses the point.
“We turn into rocket scientists and don’t think about basic needs,” she says. “If you have a family that’s in generational poverty, if you don’t have enough to eat, of course you’re going to walk around with an attitude. They get trapped into the culture of the streets.”
Whether culture is cause or effect or both, Rivera says, addressing attitude alone won’t get jobless people decent work.
STRIVE has been around for 25 years, but in 2007 it revamped its curriculum to focus more on skills. “What we realized was that New York, starting in 1950, became more of a postindustrial society. We no longer clean you up, put you in a suit and tie, put you in the back office. The skills gap was a problem. You’d come here for a month, you’d get straightened out, and we’d put you in a dead-end job,” says Rivera. The clients “were no longer willing to put up with a month of [instruction] because, then what, a dead-end job?”
The program, which took in 1,300 students last year, now offers more computer skills— simple stuff like how to e-mail, what a PDF is and how to search for jobs on Monster.com. And once students are done with their basic work, they can graduate to more advanced instruction in green construction or computer repair.
STRIVE is just one of several entities around the city working to address the joblessness problem one client at a time; the Fortune Society and Center for Employment Opportunities are among the others. STRIVE is seeing more college graduates these days, Ortiz says, as well as people who were working but got laid off, even some who had jobs but quit hoping the STRIVE course could get them a better job. One day in early February, the clients and applicants at STRIVE reflected the diversity of stories inside the black unemployment problem.
James Brown, the laid-off security guard, was there, as was Jermaine Green, who has worked since age 14 and has a certification for auto repair but lost a job at Enterprise Renta- Car. A black woman who’s been a licensed union plumber for 20 years but can’t get work was signing up for the program. A younger black woman with a degree in fashion design but who had to leave her home in New Jersey after a violent incident involving her father was hoping to get computer training.
Jondale Willis, a 30-year-old, was in to get a refresher course before taking a certification test for asbestos removal. He dropped out of high school in 11th grade but later obtained his GED. In 2000, he and his brother stuck up and shot a livery cab driver. Jondale did eightand- a-half years in prison. Since his release in 2008, he says, he’s “dabbled in construction for two or three months here or there.” He wants something steadier. The fact is, since he went away at so young an age, he’s never really tested the job market. “So this is like a fresh start,” he says. Also visiting was Andrew Salmond, 31, who moved to New York only days before. He grew up in New Jersey, where his father was an executive at a sporting goods company. Married, with a young daughter, he’d been living in Pennsylvania and working as a contractor. He has an associate’s degree in visual arts but has never used it; he likes working with his hands.
“I was trying to do something bigger,” he says. “I started my own business.” It went well for a while, but then, he says, “I got pretty much screwed by four of my customers.”
He’d already spent the money from the payments that his clients never made. His wife, a certified nurse assistant, was pregnant with their second child and couldn’t work (she’s since had a son). “Things got really tight,” he says. “Pampers aren’t cheap.” So he’d moved in with family in Brooklyn and was hoping STRIVE would help him break into steadier work in the city.
Three years ago, Salmond says, he was pretty comfortable. Three years ago, Jondale Willis was in prison. Now they’re both part of the black unemployment problem that policy has to solve.
“Just think about this,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in his State of the City address in January. “Across the five boroughs, black and Hispanic young men have a poverty rate that is 50 percent higher than white and Asian young men. Their rate of unemployment is 60 percent higher. They are two times more likely to not graduate from high school, far more likely to become a teen father, and— most troubling of all—more than 90 percent of all young murder victims and perpetrators are black and Hispanic.”
He continued: “These statistics aren’t so different from those in other cities, but they are totally unacceptable here. We don’t and won’t accept them! This is New York! We can do better, and we will!”
The city, the mayor promised, would inventory programs that are available to disadvantaged youth and come up with “new strategies and public-private partnerships to tackle the problems of unemployment, teen pregnancy, high school dropouts and crime.” Federal stimulus money would go to fund 2,000 more youth jobs this year, with a required career development class for those who participate. A job program for people leaving Rikers Island jail would also be expanded. Bloomberg is not a newcomer to the issue of unemployment. After taking office, he revamped a badly broken workforcedevelopment system, one that Mayor Rudy
Giuliani had starved of attention and funds. From one low-wattage “one stop” center way out in Jamaica, the city now has 10 Workforce1 centers located throughout the five boroughs. In the past two years, the Workforce1 centers have placed 37,000 people in jobs.
One of the centers is right on 125th Street in Harlem. One Wednesday in January, the place was packed: Every seat was filled. People were filling out paperwork against the wall. Others were waiting in front of the elevators and in alcoves. A calendar of training sessions listed a basic résumé lab, a “computer skills assessment” and a class on interviewing skills.
“For the resources available, and considering that this is the first real test of the system in a sustained downturn, it’s performing pretty well,” says David Jason Fischer, a researcher at the Center for an Urban Future when City Limits interviewed him (he is now employed with the city’s Workforce Investment Board). “The steps they’ve taken in response to the crisis have been helpful.” He adds that the Workforce1 centers “have built up a level of credibility with employers that was unimaginable eight years ago.”
The centers, not surprisingly, are somewhat better tooled to serve those who have a high school diploma and some job experience—people who would, with or without the city’s help, be better positioned to find work than those without basic credentials and a work history. While 22 percent of the men who came into the centers in 2008 and 2009 lacked high school diplomas, only 17 percent of those with recorded placements were dropouts.
Some believe the city could be doing more. STRIVE’s Angelo Rivera sees a downside to the emphasis the city has placed on forming connections with employers before training workers.
“The city still doesn’t have faith that we can take poor people of color and do something meaningful with them,” he says. “Whenever I meet with a city agency, the first thing they ask me is, ‘Do you have your employers lined up?’ It’s such a hedge and such a cop-out. That doesn’t work.” Rivera’s argument is that the city must prepare unemployed black men to compete in the job market on their own. The only employers who’ll sign on to take graduates of a job training program, he says, are those that pay low wages— and designing a training program around the needs of lowwage employers is not a path to progress. “For the city. it’s going to take a Manhattan Project or a Normandy invasion to deal with this,” Rivera says.
Rivera and the city sit on opposite sides of a chicken-and-egg question that has long dogged workforce development policy. If you train people without establishing a pipeline into an employer, are you setting them up for disappointment? If you train people for a predetermined job, are you cheating them of skills that they’ll need to find better work?
In either case, the city’s capacity to solve the jobs problem is limited; a Normandy invasion is unlikely. By one 2007 estimate, the number of people who need employment help is 10 times larger than the number that Workforce1 centers served. Bloomberg, facing a huge city deficit, has targeted several workforce development programs for cuts. Adult literacy, summer youth employment, and subsidized day care could all see their funding slashed. The state is also threatening to cut funding for workforce-related programs, with Gov. David Paterson proposing eliminating the $35 million Summer Youth Employment Program, plus child care, and wage subsidy and other programs worth an additional $44 million.
The budget constraints are not Bloomberg’s making, but there are other decisions the city has made that contribute to the black employment problem. While impressed by the mayor’s attention in his State of the City speech to unemployed men of color, NYU’s Noguera notes that Bloomberg failed to address the city’s role in the incarceration epidemic: “He spent time talking about the black-male problem but he never talked about discrimination. Police are targeting black youth for minor infractions: marijuana, subway infractions. There is intense harassment, and that is a huge problem in the city.”
The city recently lost a federal lawsuit over the hiring practices of the FDNY, which despite serving a city that is 25 percent black has a firefighting force that is 2.9 percent black, a proportion far lower than most major cities. In its defense of the hiring system, the Bloomberg administration argued that the reason for the disparate test performance is that we don’t live in a “hypothetical world in which racial and ethnic groups perform equally well.” The judge found that the city had never demonstrated that the test measured skills necessary to be a good firefighter. As reported in the Village Voice, when Bloomberg was deposed in that case and asked whether he’d read a report by the city’s Equal Employment Practices Commission on fire department hiring, he replied: “I don’t remember whether I read this or not and what I did if I did read it.”
And while Bloomberg’s economic development policies have often stressed job creation, the administration’s mantra that “any job is better than none” glosses over a lot of tricky details. Does the new development at places like Yankee Stadium, Willets Point and Atlantic Yards displace other jobs? Is there training available for community residents to get jobs on site? Do the jobs pay too little to allow workers to be self-sufficient?
Antwan Williams knows about economic development policies that don’t pan out. He’s 30 and has a part-time job as a porter at a building on 127th Street. But he wanted more work and was hired in mid-October as a forklift operator at the new Costco on 125th Street. At first he was getting 40 hours week, but then his hours were cut, and cut again. They laid him off along with several other employees in early January—too soon into their tenure for them to collect unemployment benefits, he says. “They’re bringing the companies here. They’re giving us the jobs,” Williams says. “But they don’t say nothing about us keeping them.”
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) created or saved somewhere between 600,000 and 1.6 million jobs in the third quarter of 2009, which is when the money from the “stimulus bill,” as it is popularly known, began kicking in. The Obama administration’s own tracking tool estimates that, in the fourth quarter of last year, 600,000 jobs were created or saved.
Money from the stimulus bill helped fund workforce development in New York State (to the tune of $170 million) as well as extended unemployment benefits. The Department of Labor’s Pathways Out of Poverty grants have funded training in green construction at places like STRIVE in East Harlem. Meanwhile, the billions spent on extended unemployment insurance and food stamps have helped people bearing the brunt of the recession’s impact. “As bad as things are in this recession, and they’re terrible, they would have been even worse to the tune of 6 million more people below the poverty line without that set of steps being taken,” says Arloc Sherman, a senior researcher at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a research organization in Washington. The bill also included a tax credit for businesses who hire disconnected youth.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that when it comes to the employment problem, the stimulus is not doing enough for black people. A recent NYU Wagner School report called “Race, Gender and the Recession” finds that blacks and Latinos make up only 5.1 percent of the employees in the industries targeted by the stimulus bill. White non-Hispanic men will benefit most from jobs created or saved through the act, with about twice as many white-male jobs being rescued or created as black- and Latino-male jobs, the report found. This is largely because of the path the stimulus money is taking, through industries like construction and mining that usually have low representation of black men. “Data shows that communities with the lowest unemployment rates are getting more resources than communities with higher rates,” says United for a Fair Economy’s Brian Miller.
Pressure is mounting within the black political class for Mr. Obama to provide more targeted aid to communities hit hardest by the recession. California congresswoman Maxine Waters recently joined eight other black lawmakers in blocking a financial regulation bill until she secured an agreement to spend $3 billion in money recovered from the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) on mortgage relief for the unemployed. The National Urban League has called for targeted action to address urban unemployment. Rev. Jesse Jackson is promising a cross-country series of job rallies. Late last year the Congressional Black Caucus launched a working group to develop policy proposals to “address the acute economic crisis in the African-American community and beyond,” according its chairwoman, Congresswoman Barbara Lee of California.
In a statement in December, Lee pointed out that the black unemployment rate is “nearly twice that of whites,” that more than three times as many blacks as whites receive food stamps and that black college grads have a harder time finding jobs. “The gaps are very real,” Lee said. Recalling Mr. Obama’s speech on race during the 2008 campaign, Lee argued that “tackling systemic inequality requires specific, concrete and targeted action.”
But the President has resisted that push. In a December interview with USA Today, he said, “I will tell you that I think the most important thing I can do for the African-American community is the same thing I can do for the American community, period, and that is get the economy going again and get people hiring again.” He added: “I think it’s a mistake to start thinking in terms of particular ethnic segments of the United States rather than to think that we are all in this together and we are all going to get out of this together.”
The view that Mr. Obama has a duty to address racial disparities (“That’s why people elected him as President,” says Rev. Lennox Yearwood of the Hip Hop Caucus. “He should speak to it boldly and proudly.”) clashes with conventional political wisdom. The President’s poll numbers are down, and midterm elections are approaching. Whatever propelled Scott Brown into Ted Kennedy’s U.S. Senate seat, it wasn’t black rage.
When the President last stepped into a racial issue, the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. in his own home last year, he quickly found himself in damage-control mode. However conclusive the evidence that America’s economic pain has a color—and that it is Mr. Obama’s own—his advisers are unlikely to counsel the President to point it out.
Even the suggestion that certain areas of the country, like inner cities, are hurting more than others is politically dangerous.
“The last thing we want to do is get into a debate about whose pain hurts more,” says the NAACP’s Hilary Shelton.
The job creation proposals the President pitched in his State of the Union address didn’t seem especially well tailored to targeting hard-hit communities. One proposal would use $30 billion in repaid TARP money to help community banks lend more to small businesses. Another would provide a tax credit to small businesses that hire new workers or raise wages. He also wants a menu of other tax cuts and more infrastructure spending. All these ideas could help areas like Harlem, the South Bronx, Staten Island’s north shore, Jamaica and Red Hook. But what black leaders—some of whom met with the President the day after the State of the Union speech—have pressed for is something that would be specifically targeted to those areas. That they didn’t get.
The delivery, however, will be in the details. In his address to Congress, Mr. Obama praised the House for passing a jobs bill and called on the Senate to do the same. The House measure—the $154 billion Jobs for Main Street Act—directs more money to the infrastructure projects that to date have not translated into gains for black workers. But it also provides funding for states to retain teachers, cops and firefighters; education, at least, is one sector in which blacks are well represented.
As the legislation advances, more targeted assistance could be written in. Congressman Keith Ellison, a Democrat from Minnesota, has authored a jobs bill (H.R. 4268) that would target new stimulus funding to people who have been unemployed for at least 26 weeks or who fall into one of several categories of need, like veterans, ex-inmates or welfare recipients. Or the final product could be paltry. At press time, the only bill to win full Congressional approval was a $18 billion measure, offering tax credits for new hires. Solving the longer-term problem of black-male joblessness—the growing number of black men who are out of the labor force altogether—is going to require more than $17 billion. Deciding what it takes depends on whom you ask.
Outright racial discrimination will never be eliminated. But the National Urban League’s president and CEO, former New Orleans mayor Marc Morial, says law enforcement has a role to play in making racism less of a factor in hiring. “We have seen in the last eight years a Department of Justice civil rights division and [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission]—an entire civil rights infrastructure created in the ’60s and ’70s—that effectively had their hands tied behind their backs and did not do their jobs, could not do their jobs,” he said at a conference in January. He predicted that under Mr. Obama, the DOJ would be more aggressive.
Some “unemployed” black men don’t really need new work; they instead need a way to bring their jobs out of the grey economy and into the light of day. Steven Pitts, the UC–Berkeley labor economist, points out that some unknown number of black men are working, just not in the formal sector. They are micro-entrepreneurs, artists, craftsmen. For them, government can provide assistance that not only formalizes their employment but strengthens it, perhaps by providing work space to black male artisans or offices for black men who provide financial services.
Those who see low wages as a chief problem look for ways to sweeten the deal for low-skilled workers. Harry Holzer, the Georgetown economist, favors altering the Earned Income Tax Credit, which now favors married couples and people with children, to offer a boost to single workers with child support obligations. For black men facing a choice between not working and working for a low wage, an enhanced EITC would improve the latter option.
For NYU scholar Larry Mead, who blames poor work attitudes among black men for the problem, reducing joblessness will take a mandatory work program for men on parole or who have child support obligations. Arguing that adding work requirements to welfare helped welfare mothers gain some measure of self-sufficiency, Mead proposes requiring work and guaranteeing jobs at a decent wage for men who, because they are on parole or owe child support, could be sent to jail if they do not work. “We drove most of the mothers away from government. In the fathers’ case, they’re living out there on the street. They’re kind of outside society, in a kind of state of nature. They have to be brought in from the cold,” Mead says. “They have to be required to do the thing that is in their self-interest.”
Forcing people to work or do jail time is, well, problematic. But the conservative Mead’s talk of guaranteed jobs echoes what’s coming from the opposite side of the political spectrum, where there are calls for the government to simply create jobs (without, however, forcing people to take them).
Dozens of pols and commentators on the left have called for a modern take on the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration. In one such proposal, Congressman Jerrold Nadler of New York City has for several years proposed creating transit jobs for disconnected youth. His bill, H.R. 2497, would spend about $100 million a year. Meanwhile, Calinfornia Rep. George Miller has outlined a $75 billion measure to directly create 750,000 jobs. In the long term, most experts say much more must be done to close the skills gap between black men and other workers. That means improving high schools by providing better incentives for teachers, adjusting what skills those schools teach to the demands of the labor market, expanding career and vocational education and creating opportunities for job training for men who are already out of school, perhaps through community colleges. Those efforts, however, will take time. Action is needed now.
“This idea that we can take someone with a seventh- or eighth-grade reading level and immediately put them into community college as a way to high-skill high-wage
Backers say that a government jobs program that combined decent wages with a meaningful education component would attack the skills gap, the wage problem and the job shortage. It sounds like a simplistic solution to a complex problem, but maybe that’s what black men need. “Jobs,” says Mason, the economic professor from Florida. “You can train people but they’ve got to have jobs.”