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A Crisis Without Management

The numbers are shocking. According to a new study by the Community Service Society, just 52 percent of New York City’s black males between the ages of 16 and 64 were employed in 2003. Compare that to the rates in the same age group for white (76 percent) and Latino (66 percent) males, and the term crisis comes to mind. Throw in the fact that only 57 percent of black women in the same age range are employed, and even the word epidemic seems too mild a description of the current state of poverty in black America.

So what’s being done? Who’s speaking out? Where do populations of color fit in terms of the city’s current patterns of growth? Does Mayor Bloomberg have a plan to address poverty in the city? Sometimes, the answers are more important than the questions.

Here, briefly, are three possible initial remedies:

1) Renew affirmative action programs across the city. Among other things, what the report by the Community Service Society shows— once again—is that, left to their own preferences, private employers will reinforce existing patterns of discrimination, not break them down. So the choice is simple: the city both demands that, and creates strong incentives for, employers to hire people of color, or the ranks of the unemployed in black America will continue to grow.

2) Invest public money in public works projects. One of FDR’s first acts to overcome the Depression was to create the Civilian Conservation Corps, which put the unemployed from urban areas to work in rural areas. How about a City Conservation Corps, which puts the unemployed to work at home, repairing streets and parks, and building schools, across the city? Paying real wages, of course, would help boost local businesses, and in general create more tax revenue for the city.

3) Stop pushing for two-tiered wage and benefit systems from the city’s public sector unions. The public sector has historically been one of the few avenues of advancement into middle class stability for the city’s populations of color. Politicians and labor officials who sellout the next generation of workers thus need to be held accountable.

Obviously, there’s about a zillion other things that need to be done, in terms of education, job training, the shattering of glass ceilings, and so on. But right now, all we’re getting from the Mayor in terms of economic vision is stadiums from downtown Brooklyn to the west side of Manhattan. Such projects promise to create a relatively small number of long-term jobs, mostly at the lower end of the service sector. They also utilize public funds that could be used to subsidize more long-term growth, in high-tech, manufacturing and other areas.

Will a rising tide lift all boats? The Community Service Society report’s author Mark Levitan, for one, fears that that problem of black unemployment is "more deeply structural." What this suggests is that the remedies must begin with government action. Rather than building stadiums, perhaps the Mayor should start figuring out how to create level playing fields.


Theodore Hamm


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2004

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