I believe the habits we form in our youth can either sustain us or sink us as we age. With U.S. teen unemployment at 21 percent overall and 49 percent among African-Americans, I am worried that our young people are getting into the habit of being unemployed.
I’m concerned that too many of our youths are growing up in an unemployment environment where joblessness — and the psychological, emotional and economic marginalization that goes with it — is perceived as normal.
As a young man, being unemployed never entered my mind. It simply wasn’t a part of my reality. I was confident that anybody who wanted a job could get one.
In my teens, I worked part time at a men’s clothing store. I learned retail business practices and sales techniques. I learned tailoring, all about fabric, shoes, shirts and ties. I learned how to dress for success.
Next I worked at a grocery store as a stock boy. It was a union job, so I paid union dues and learned to work under various union rules. After the Army, I worked as a railroad yard clerk keeping track of train cars and teletyping ahead a traffic report to the next train yard. I learned the importance of precision and accuracy in my work and took pride in getting it right.
These positions gave me a sense of self-worth, independence, confidence and knowledge that I still use today. The jobs of my youth enforced discipline as well as helped me begin to develop a personal process for evaluating people and situations. That process evolved as I found my life’s work in human rights advocacy, in politics and as a church pastor.
These are some of the reasons that I felt it was imperative for me to introduce H.R. 1901, Saving America’s Youth: The Youth Employment Act, in the 112th Congress. The legislation would create summer and year-round jobs and workforce training for teenagers and young adults who are not enrolled in school, long-term unemployed and ex-offenders.
The bill includes tax incentives for business owners who employ young people and would create a national public service employment program.
All of this is aimed at creating the habit of work and ending the dangerous idea that joblessness is acceptable.
The consequences of failure on this front are dire, especially in the African-American community. In her excellent book “The New Jim Crow,” civil rights attorney Michelle Alexander says her research shows that “there are more African Americans under correctional control today — in prison or jail, on probation or parole, than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.”
Alexander goes on to document the negative societal effects of this mass incarceration on communities and families. She argues that ex-felons are a part of a growing American “undercaste” who are denied voting rights and excluded from juries, jobs, housing, education and other basic opportunities. Alexander traces the increase of prisoners of color to the war on drugs “waged almost exclusively in poor communities.”
We can debate the deeper underlying reasons and all their complexities. But her book makes one thing clear: The link between poverty and prison is undeniable. I’d connect the dots even further to link joblessness and poverty.
There is an important but rarely spoken-about dimension to American citizenship. We are economic beings. We each have an economic aspect to our existence. It’s in our fundamental national character to produce and realize our value to society. This essentially American characteristic should not be marginalized or cast aside. And government has an important role to play in democratizing job opportunities.
Jobs define us. Jobs design us. Jobs refine us. If we don’t work to end the youth unemployment crisis now, an entire generation could grow up without the habit of work. The price we must pay to fix this now is nothing compared with the price we will pay in the future if we don’t.
Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) is ranking member of the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power.