It was hard to watch the images coming out of Baltimore last week. Seeing Freddy Gray’s life cut short, a man who was the same age as my own son, was tragic enough. The ensuing protests, the riot, the wall-to-wall media coverage, the talk about urban hopelessness, lack of opportunity, poor education – all of this was unsurprising, if not downright predictable. This is a story that is getting very old, about a situation for which solutions exist, solutions that are not even being attempted. That is precisely why the story is so hard to watch.
I grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood in the center of Flint, Michigan. Today, Flint is the poster child for post-globalization economic collapse, but when I was coming of age there during the 1960s, Flint was a model of middle-class success and upward mobility. I’m hard-pressed to think of anyone from my old neighborhood who ended up hopeless and in despair, and I can readily name doctors, nurses, pharmacists, lawyers, business executives, skilled tradespeople, police officers, firefighters, and more who hail from “back on the block.” In short, we grew up to be a pretty successful group, positive contributors to our community and to society at large. Why were we so fortunate? What distinguished us from the young people we saw in Baltimore last week? The main distinguishing factor is that our parents had jobs. Sure, we had decent government, good schools, and great recreation and enrichment opportunities, but the underlying enabler is that we lived in a middle-class community, and our community was middle-class because our parents worked. No one was rich, but they had enough for life’s necessities, they had dignity, and their time was productively occupied. Contrast that to the situation in Baltimore and many other cities today, where so many adults are unemployed, or are employed at poverty wages. These are the communities where we now decry the lack of opportunity, the hopelessness, the despair.
What happened? How did things get so bad? We could argue that issue for a long time, because I don’t fully subscribe to the conventional wisdom explanations involving technology and globalization. We’ll save that argument for another day. I want to talk about solutions, because we’re getting to the point where we have no time for the luxury of argument. Some of the pundits I’ve heard these past few days have been saying that more money will not solve the problems of places like Baltimore. They say pouring money into the same old programs is going to yield the same results. You know what? I agree with them. Oh, it’s going to cost some money all right, but it’s going to take a lot more than that to get our cities, and our middle-class, back on track. We’ve got to try some new things, some different things, some BIG things. I’m convinced that we can dramatically improve the situation in places like Baltimore (and, of course, Flint) if we get serious about doing so.
So what’s the solution? First of all, we must recognize that no amount of money or social engineering is going to take the place of a job. People need to work not only for the money, but also for self-esteem, dignity, and respect. People who lack those essential elements often feel like nobodies, with nothing to lose. That’s the sentiment that characterized many of the young people seen rampaging through the streets of Baltimore last Monday night. In our most judgmental moments, we often decry these young peoples’ lack of family structure, but in reality, how can one form and sustain a family in the absence of economic security? If we truly want to bring our disenfranchised young people into the mainstream of American life, we must do three big things:
- Institute a massive program of infrastructure building, rebuilding, and repair.
- In partnership with the corporate business community, establish (or repatriate) a significant number of low-to-medium skill manufacturing jobs in high-unemployment areas.
- Establish a national effort to train and empower entrepreneurs to develop and execute for-profit businesses that address the needs of people who live in urban communities.
#1 is no surprise. This is something many economists have suggested, and President Obama has proposed, for the past several years. It is maddening that, with our infrastructure crumbling all around us, our leaders refuse to take the no-brainer step of fixing it. I think we need to go even further than what has been proposed and establish a WPA-like program that ensures life skills training, job training, and a job to disenfranchised youth.
#2 definitely goes against the conventional wisdom. Manufacturing jobs are gone, folks say, and they will never return. Well, manufacturing jobs never left Germany, and last I looked the German economy was doing pretty well. Manufacturing jobs never left Japan, and yet I haven’t heard of their auto companies going bankrupt. We need to be smart about it, for sure, and craft business models that make sense, but I’m convinced that, if our corporate leaders and the business consulting community put their minds to it, we can increase our manufacturing base enough to absorb a few million job-seekers.
#3 is new. We talk about entrepreneurship being essential to our future vitality, but entrepreneurship education and training only reach a small, elite slice of our population. A coordinated, comprehensive, creative approach to entrepreneurship and business development, beginning in grade school, will extend business innovation “to the people,” and transform the business culture in our communities. We must teach our young people to create their own jobs, so that they can choose to work for someone else or work for themselves.
My intuition and life experience tell me that for a community to be healthy, the residents must have jobs. That understanding must be at the core of any remedies we attempt. The longer we fail to act, the greater the ultimate cost will be.