They are not the people who command the headlines. For that matter, they aren’t even the folks who receive even cursory news coverage. Yet, they are a part of our landscape and community.
They are the people we sit next to on buses and subways. They are our neighbors and even members of our families. They are the young people who have felt the most punishing sting of the nation’s economic malaise: the African-American and Latino youth who are unemployed, whose economic struggles are the most relentless and who seem destined for ever-continuing joblessness.
The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that the unemployment rate last year among high school dropouts between ages 16 and 24 was nearly 30 percent, up from 17 percent a decade earlier and roughly seven points higher than others in their age groups who finished high school but did not enroll in college. Those figures, staggering as they are, jump even higher when the low graduation rate of Black and Latino men and women becomes part of the equation.
Phillip Jackson, the executive director of the Black Star Project, a Chicago-based program that helps Black young people remain in school, estimates that nearly 80 percent of the young Black men in that city who have dropped out of high school are unemployed. That’s consistent with the estimates by experts in New York and other major cities.
If that’s not a cry for action-and action of the most potent nature-it’s hard to imagine what is. However, in a nation whose media are consumed by the drama of the Herman Cain campaign and Kardashian marital woes, the plight of these young people is never highlighted. That renders them forgotten, forgotten in the discussion of the nation’s economic outlook, forgotten among a Republican leadership whose only agenda appears to be to stonewall any meaningful jobs package.
Yet, forgotten though they may be, these young people are a presence in our communities. They are the people filling out applications in McDonald’s, the folks we see milling around the stores in the neighborhood. Their fate represents, in no small measure, the destiny of our cities and our neighborhoods if we don’t take meaningful action now.
The solution has to be multi-pronged. It will take a Congress that is as serious about creating jobs as it is about discrediting the man in the White House who seems to be the only one in Washington who has a plan aimed at reducing unemployment. However, it will also take people of good will-legions of them-to give of their time to become involved in efforts to encourage our young people to graduate from high school and to provide opportunities for them once they do.
Furthermore, it will require us to reject society’s tendency toward callousness toward those who are struggling and besieged. I once heard about a top administrator in an urban Black college who resisted the idea of housing a program to support the educational pursuits of students who had recently been released from prison. Shockingly, he is reported to have said he didn’t want “that element” on the campus as if these students might instead flock to the suburbs.
We need to support programs that offer job and life-skills training for these young men. We need to condemn the business practice of not hiring anyone who isn’t currently employed.
These young people are not only in our communities, they are part of our communities, and we are interconnected. Somehow, that message needs to permeate the minds and imaginations of our nation’s leaders and replace politics as the guiding principle for the efforts of Congress. At the same time, it should raise a sense of urgency for all of us to find our own distinctive ways of getting involved and helping to solve the problem.