Why are young black men so quick to take to the streets, rioting and looting their own neighborhoods? Because they have nothing to lose. Yes, they may be thrown into jail, but for too many, that is likely to happen anyway.
Unlike the majority of white or Asian kids, they do not risk being bounced out of school, or not being accepted to their university of choice. Their parents are not going to ground them or make them do chores for a month. This doesn’t excuse their behavior, but it helps explain it. These kids are untethered to their own futures – and that is a challenge for our country.
As Baltimore burned Monday night, it became the latest community to succumb to violence. Anger over the death of a young black man has again turned ugly, as it did in Ferguson, Missouri last year. Many see such outbursts as symptomatic of underlying wounds in our society, such as the high rate of incarceration among blacks and the gap between rich and poor. With the backdrop of the Baltimore riots, these issues are likely to loom large in the 2016 presidential contest.
Republicans should win the debate, by talking about opportunity. Marco Rubio is gaining on his rivals not because of his communication skills, which are at best above average, but because he talks about the American dream in a powerful and convincing manner. He genuinely believes in the freedoms and opportunities that are available to people in the United States, and his conviction is contagious. The task for Republicans is to match policy with promise, and to take that optimism into our inner cities.
They can start with erecting a ladder to success for every child in the country. The rungs of that ladder are the skills, which will allow young people to get a decent job – as an electrician or computer – jobs that are becoming available as Boomers retire. Unless young people learn how to become self-sufficient, they will be dependent on the state, one way or another.
At the Milken Conference this week, a large gathering of business people and policy makers embracing “The Power of Ideas,” a panel involved with education, discussed the lack of ambition among inner-city kids. The grade school children they described had no idea what it might take to earn a living, or support a family. Their models of success are NBA stars or rappers – or worse, the drug seller down the street. They don’t know much about middle-class goals and lives.
Some of the speakers had developed programs that help focus children on a pathway out of their neighborhoods; they ask what their dreams are, and try to connect those aspirations with concrete steps and achievements. At-risk children lack all kinds of things, including stable homes and support networks; these cannot be provided by the government. But, policy makers can make a dent by bringing attainable goals within their reach and comprehension.
Milken hosted a bipartisan panel of governors, all of whom emphasized job training as essential to their states’ futures. North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory criticized President Obama for sending a “false message” – that the only way you can become a success is by obtaining a four-year degree. Instead, he suggests, young people need to acquire training that can lead to a livelihood, especially since aging Boomers will soon leave many spots unfilled. He notes that the average age of a mechanic in North Carolina is 57, a farmer, 58.
Vocational training in high school, once thought discriminatory, is an appropriate path for many young people. The approach is becoming more popular. Carmen Farina, Democrat schools chancellor of New York City, is among those on board with rejecting a decades-old antipathy to teaching students jobs-related skills. She understands that such training will allow young people to become self-sufficient, and successful.
Republicans need to embrace any and every policy that can lead low-income young people to earn a living. Money from the federal budget should flow to counseling, internships and health services – not to prisons. Not only is self-reliance the path to dignity, it is also the bedrock of the upward mobility that the United States celebrates. Opportunity is the most potent remedy for despair and the kind of destructive behavior on display in Baltimore.
This is not the approach favored by Democrats. For over six years, President Obama has stirred the coals of envy, trying to spark anger over income inequality in the United States. Americans aren’t buying it. They are not uncomfortable that some people in our country are better off than others, despite statistics showing that the gap between rich and poor continues to increase, even under Obama’s watch.
That doesn’t mean they are happy. While tolerant of income disparity, Americans are increasingly incensed over growing “opportunity inequality” – the idea that not every child has a shot at success, that outcomes are preordained by zip code.
President Obama’s solution has been to send more young people to college. Where has that gotten us? Millions of college graduates working in low-paying jobs that do not take advantage of their advanced degree and that promise no hope of paying off burdensome college loans. Billions of federal dollars flowing into our college system, raising costs.
Defaults are rising, and are concentrated among low-income families. Of people who took out student loans in 2009, 70 percent from low-income neighborhoods were struggling to repay their debt, according to the New York Fed, compared to only 37 percent from wealthy areas. These young people are trapped.
President Obama also wants a higher minimum wage, as does Hillary Clinton -- a prospect that is likely to cost jobs – and not just any jobs. According to Arthur Brooks, head of the American Enterprise Institute, it is specifically low-skilled, low-income black teens who will be hurt by any hike in the minimum wage. Liberal groups leaned on beleaguered McDonald’s to support the push for a $10.10 minimum wage; the company caved, and at the same time rolled out new automation measures that will contain labor costs. Yes, a higher minimum wage will raise income for some people, but as Brooks noted at the Milken Conference, the asymmetric impact of an increase will likely strike a group already struggling with unemployment above 30 percent.
These nostrums from Democrats are old and tired. Republicans have a chance in this wide-open primary year to compete with new ideas – not just aimed at improving the fortunes of young blacks, but of boosting our economy and thus all Americans. Ideas that remind voters of what makes our country great.
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