Idle Hands: Why The Candidates Must Focus On Young Americans

By Jeff Chang Jun 11, 2008

Originally published on Zentronix This summer could be the worst ever for teens looking for work, according to experts. Less than one in three youths may find summer jobs. In recent years, the youth jobless rate has soared to record highs. In cities like Chicago, three in four teens, including seven in eight Black teens, did not work in 2006. But this summer could mark the highest level of youth joblessness since the end of World War II. The shrinking economy and rising unemployment rates are to blame, as laid-off workers compete with young people for shrinking piece of the pie. Budget cuts have led to the ending of federal, state, and city youth jobs programs. But the biggest problem is a lack of political interest. Earlier this year, George W. Bush and Democratic Congressional leadership killed a $1 billion proposal to create youth jobs. At the same time, the Justice Department gave a $500,000 grant to a George H.W. Bush-chaired golf program supposedly meant to stop juvenile crime. "We need something really attractive to engage the gangs and the street kids," the Justice Department’s administrator was quoted as saying. "Golf is the hook." Dozens of other effective programs were denied. Many grants were disbursed via affirmative action for friends of the administration, the domestic equivalent of handing out no-bid work to firms for "Iraqi reconstruction". It was still more proof that politicians have neither a clue nor a care as to how to really address the needs of young Americans. The team at Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies has been trying to call attention to the historic rise in youth joblessless. But in a recent shocking, but sadly not-yet-influential report, they posed the question right in the title: "Does Anybody Care?" The issue has not been raised in any of the presidential debates. But the Center’s researchers say the developing trend represents nothing less than "the collapse of the teen job market". They sketch the problem in starkest terms for youth of color. Even the poorest white teens are more likely to find work than the wealthiest Black teens. Wealthy white teens are two and a half times more likely to be employed than the poorest Black teens, whose employment rate was merely 18.9% last summer. They write, "Low income, Black and Hispanic teens face the equivalent of a Great Depression." Bob Herbert from the New York Times outlined the consequences in a recent editorial:

There are four million or more of these so-called disconnected youths across the country. They hang out on street corners in cities large and small — and increasingly in suburban and rural areas. If you ask how they survive from day to day, the most likely response is: "I hustle," which could mean anything from giving haircuts in a basement to washing a neighbor’s car to running the occasional errand. Or it could mean petty thievery or drug dealing or prostitution or worse.

To the hip-hop generation–and the authorities charged with containing it–this is all hardly news. Violent crime rates, which have taken disturbing leaps in some inner cities over the past few years, tend to rise during the summer. Idle hands are the devil’s tools. But this is an extreme–and simplistic–way to understand a deep problem. Experts make an economic argument. Idled hands mean less productivity for the nation. Idled minds mean decreased competitiveness in the global economy now and in the future. There is another argument: youths who want work and cannot find it are being sent the wrong message. Is this a country that really respects hard work if it places no value on creating work? Indeed, what message does this nation want to send its young? John F. Kennedy famously implored a new generation not to ask what their country could do for them, but to ask what they could do for their country. In 1963, he followed up with a wide-ranging address outlining the nation’s responsibility to its young. In it, he discussed the creation of the Peace Corps, a National Service Corps, and a youth jobs program. He said, "The future promise of any nation can be directly measured by the present prospects of its youth." What does it mean that, almost a half century later, young Americans face record rates of joblessness? Since the ’60s, youth policy has less often been discussed in terms of harnessing energies, than in terms of suppressing problems. There has been a massive shift towards harsher criminal and juvenile justice policies. The stunning rise in youth joblessness is a symptom of a larger national neglect, a neglect that is interrupted only by–ironic at best, disingenuous at worst–episodes of hand-wringing over young people’s corruptibility and directionlessness. Punishment, it seems, has been the only coherent national youth policy since Kennedy. Senator McCain, perhaps unsurprisingly, has been mostly silent on these issues, save vows to clean up the student loan mess. But even Senator Obama, who has clearly benefited by the enthusiasm of the young and who understands perhaps better than any politician youths’ skepticism toward politics, has not yet outlined a place for them in his vision of America. He supports focusing closely on job development and student achievement in 20 impoverished areas, what he calls "Promise Neighborhoods". More intriguingly, he backs a program of green-collar jobs for inner-city youths first pioneered by hip-hop activists in the Bay Area. But even these worthy programs are hardly more than a drop in the bucket, and don’t by themselves add up to anything close to a national youth policy. Senator Obama knows that the creative energies of young people can never be underestimated. In his interview with Vibe last year, he noted that hip-hop is a vast make-work project, a way of harnessing and channeling vast energies of young people. (This is partly why the up-by-the-bootstraps mythology–a narrative easily twisted into a celebration of consumerism that demagogues are then quick to criticize–has become so deeply interwoven into hip-hop culture.) But how could hip-hop be enough to reverse Great Depression-sized problems? After four decades of the politics of abandonment and containment, now is the time for the presidential candidates to recognize young Americans are more than just a vote to be courted through late-night TV, more than a wellspring of videos, posters, music, and art, more than just an enthusiastic rally crowd. Inspiration has been good, hope has been good, but both are not good enough. The candidates must put young America to work, and involve the rest of us in taking full measure of the future promise of our nation.