Green-collar jobs, blue-collar justice

By Michelle Chen Jul 07, 2009

Bouncing off of Jonathan Yee’s analysis of the Recovery Act’s job training provisions: Economic analyst Tom Konrad tries to break down the green jobs puzzle at Grist. Citing the “Green Prosperity” report by the Natural Resources Defense Council and Green For All, he concludes that of every $1 million invested in green-jobs creation, roughly 48 percent would promote jobs suitable for people with a high school education or less. But green is not necessarily good. Only about 60 percent of those lower-strata jobs have “decent earning potential” (averaging $15 per hour). Another report by Good Jobs First, Change to Win and the Sierra Club, describes the myriad problems that the green economy inherits from older sectors: low wages, exploitation of non-union workers, and the potential for off-shoring. Not that there aren’t admirable efforts underway—including many grassroots ventures seeking to harness a massive economic transition. And the Recovery Act directs some job-development funds toward people in poverty. But, as Yee points out, without a clear racial-equity component built in, the plan won’t fundamentally address the needs of communities facing high barriers to employment and structural discrimination. These aren’t the folks Reagan saw as needing “readjustment"; they’re the ones whose needs typically don’t even figure into the mainstream political calculus. A study by the Chicago Fed found that workforce programs focus on more established blue-collar workers displaced by structural changes, even though the hardest hit are often the less-skilled, low-wage earners at the margins of the economy. Some groups, such as immigrants and people with criminal convictions, are triple-burdened by social biases, employment barriers and limited social resources. In a working paper for the National Black Latino Summit, Manuel Pastor of the University of Southern California’s Program for Environmental and Regional Equity argued:

Latinos and African Americans alike need better and more work. On the one hand, unemployment is an issue, especially for Black men. On the other, working poverty is an issue, especially for Latino immigrants. Both need a better performing education system at all levels—but major investments in adult education are especially important for the advancement of immigrant Latinos. The criminal justice system needs rethinking so that correction does not become destruction; this is extraordinarily critical to African Americans.

Historically, jobs programs have often involved warehousing poor people in dead-end jobs, as welfare-to-work programs tend to do—or training people in skills that employers don’t want. Creating jobs isn’t just "making work"; in the long run, it’s about making work pay. Image: Oakland Green Jobs Corps Graduation (Ella Baker Center)