How to Reduce Black Unemployment
Find jobs for the 650,000 ex-cons who come home every year, as several really good programs are already doing.
In an ideal America, our president would have told us Tuesday night about his plan not only for fixing the jobs crisis but also for making it so that the crisis wasn't twice as bad for black people (15.8 percent unemployment versus 8.5 percent for whites).
But this isn't an ideal America, and he didn't. But then, who thought he would? The good news is that there is a way to make serious headway with the black unemployment problem, and it's getting more attention by the year.
The problem is that it doesn't sound very sexy in terms of name. "Prisoner re-entry programs" sounds pretty dull compared with "black agenda" and such. But much of the disproportion in black unemployment is because of how hard it is for ex-cons to get or keep work -- when, as we all know, a grievous disproportion of ex-cons are black.
Newark, N.J., is an example of what feeds into the kind of statistic that we dream of Obama addressing in a speech. Each year about 1,500 unmarried, semiliterate drug addicts with no job skills come home from prison to Newark.
Am I stereotyping them? Well, OK, there is a certain diversity among them. Ten percent are not men. A smaller percentage are not black. There are those among them who read above the sixth-grade level. About one in five does not have a drug-addiction problem, and about one in 20 had some vocational training behind bars.
Three years after they get home, one in three will not have been arrested again, and two out of three will not be back behind bars. Now, extend this picture to all of America's big cities. About 650,000 ex-cons in total return home yearly.
Yet, thankfully, it is a myth that nobody will hire one. The ex-con needs people who know where to send him -- say, an organization like Newark's Offender Aid and Restoration of Essex County (OAR), specializing in connecting ex-offenders with work. Get this: Finding people work is the least of their challenges. The White Rose Linen Supply Co. has been especially open to hiring ex-cons, while others get work as handymen, janitors, warehouse workers and truck drivers and in sanitation and customer service.
The immediate task at hand for an ex-offender is becoming able to work. Ex-cons often don't have a Social Security number -- and forget about a birth certificate. As soon as an ex-offender comes in, OAR gets him those documents, plus a driver's license, if he qualifies. Nine in 10 clients need detoxification or rehabilitation.
The job part is then easy. Each week, OAR holds employment-counseling meetings, during which it drills clients on making eye contact, sitting up straight and asking questions, and then sends them off with three job leads.
So does Newark's Prisoners Resource Center (PRC), where every week, head case manager Omar Shabazz pulls no punches in his introductory talk to about 15 clients. " 'That's embarrassing for somebody to come into Burger King and see me flippin' burgers,' " he quotes someone as saying, and then answers: "What's embarrassing is that you dropped out of school in seventh grade!"