Given the nation's economic woes and the difficulties for millions of felons to find employment, recently I've been thinking this program needs to be reinvented for the 21st Century, not just because it would boost the economy but because it would reduce crime.
I could be wrong, but if it was limited, targeted, and short-term, with a job placement component to send workers to the private sector, I doubt the idea would be nearly as controversial with the general public as it would have been during the Cold War era, when every debate on such matters inevitably centered around whether it smacked of "socialism." Sometimes a solution isn't an "ism," sometimes it's just a good idea.
There are strong public safety arguments for considering some version of a 21st century paid government work program.
The notion recurred to me upon reading a thoughtful article by the editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer's editorial page, Harold Jackson, who delves this morning into the 40-year old Kerner Commission report, which sought to explain the source of dozens of violent riots that devastated US inner cities in 1967. Jackson argues persuasively that many black folks today are still "rioting," just in "slow motion," and I think he's right. What else could explain that one in nine black men age 20-34 are in prison? Wrote Jackson:
It's been said (I can't recall by whom) that in America we have equal protection under the law: Both rich and poor are prosecuted equally for stealing bread and sleeping under bridges. Ain't it the truth? The Kerner Commission told the nation something it was not ready to hear forty years ago: The cause of the riots was despair, an angry, public denial of the verity of the American dream for black citizens, and not just in the South.
The Kerner Commission report (named after its chairman, Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner) was released as March began in 1968. Forty years later, America would do well to review its observations and consider whether current conditions could reproduce race riots....
"Social and economic conditions in the riot cities constituted a clear pattern of severe disadvantage for Negroes compared with whites," the commission said. "Negroes had fewer years of education . . . were twice as likely to be unemployed . . . (and) more than twice as likely to be living in poverty."
We've come a long way since then. The growth of the black middle class is unparalleled by any previous period in U.S. history. And yet. . . .
Today, the black unemployment rate is 9 percent, while it's 4 percent for whites; 24 percent of blacks live in poverty, compared with 8 percent of whites; the median income of black households is $30,858, compared with $50,784 for whites. Among blacks, 20 percent lack health insurance, compared with 11 percent of whites.
So why aren't blacks rioting now? Or Hispanics, whose statistics in many cases aren't much better?...
Perhaps, in a way, they are rioting - but it's in slow motion, so they are not getting the same attention.
"The frustrations of powerlessness have led some Negroes to the conviction that there is no effective alternative to violence as a means of achieving redress of grievances, and of moving the system," said the Kerner Commission.
The report even explained the "Don't Snitch" code that existed 40 years ago and persists today: "To some Negroes, police have come to symbolize white power, white racism and white repression. . . . [Their] cynicism is reinforced by a widespread belief . . . in the existence of . . . a double standard of protection - one for Negroes and one for whites."
Four decades later that has changed to some extent, but not enough. The data from the Pew Trusts that one in nine young black men today is in prison speaks to a lack of hope and opportunity as much as it does the moral failings of those incarcerated - it's the same conundrum that faced the Kerner Commission forty years ago. That won't change with a campaign slogan.
Do you happen to watch the TV show The Wire? I consider it the most realistic crime drama ever produced, almost like a documentary novel of the modern drug trade. In the episode last week, a 15-year old black kid is walking door to door in the business district of West Baltimore looking for work. He's recognized by another kid from the streets, now working at a shoe store, who tells him the boss won't hire anyone under 17. "I guess you'll just have to keep bangin' a couple more years" then try again, he tells the disappointed youth.
Sure, it's just a TV show, but if you don't think that's exactly what's causing so many young black men to migrate to the lucrative drug trade - despair and a lack of other opportunities - you've got another think coming.
I've argued recently for allowing the labor and trade markets to function more freely, and so they should. But support for free markets does not absolve the state from responsibility to redress externalities they cause. At this point, it would be a lot cheaper just to hire and train unemployed young black men or NAFTA-displaced Ohioans en masse, WPA-style - particularly those with felony records who can't find other work - than to pay the price for policing, prosecuting and imprisoning one in nine young black men, and one in 99 out of ALL adults.
If that approach smacks of "socialism" to some readers (it's really "Keynesianism," but many conservatives don't recognize a difference), then how about sentencing low-level offenders to such job programs instead of to prison, transitioning at least part of the current reliance on incarceration to community-based work programs?
In Tyler, for example, Judge Cynthia Kent told the jail symposium in San Antonio recently that when defendants came to Smith County's newly established "day reporting center" (offenders who would have otherwise been sentenced to jail), about 85% were unemployed, but under supervision of the court, about 85% found jobs.
That's terrific news. But what if the county or state ran a paid work program that was an alternative for that 15%, for those first sentenced or who couldn't find work because of their record or some other reason? What if it facilitated day care and transportation so defendants had no excuses not to participate, and training in skills (unlike, say, making license plates) that transfer to the outside world?
As we approach $40 billion per year spent on drug enforcement alone (let alone considering the awesome size of the foreign war debt), the relative size of such employment programs all of a sudden begins to look like small potatoes. In a campaign season filled with talk of "Hope," perhaps it's a good time to remember that we face our greatest enemy not in Baghdad but in the streets of our own cities: It's name is "Despair," which flourishes in jail but can vanish overnight given an opportunity and a J-O-B.