When we were young boys we were able to earn a few quarters at a local food market packing paper bags for shoppers and carrying them to their cars. Some of us were even fortunate enough to have regular jobs as newspaper boys with routes making deliveries throughout the neighborhood. Then there were those seasonal hustles that raked in movie money or, in the case of the thrifty kid, provided enough cash to buy an article of clothing or a foxtail for a bicycle. Yep, there really was such a thing as the good ole days.
Strange how all these part-time and occasional gigs for mainly boys, but some girls too, have now become the mainstay employment for grown men and women in our city. And so many of those men and women have been or are currently down on their luck. You can see it in the parade of drawn and weathered faces that peek through your car window when you purchase a newspaper on the city streets. It’s also there in the demeanor and manner of our beggar class. Their pain lingers with us as we watch them walk away not knowing whether we have contributed to a meal or a fix. A surprising number ask for work. “Can I sweep up or do something?”
Even in the supermarket we were stunned to see a full-grown man hawking customers to pack their grocery bags. Where are the kids? Where is my paper boy/girl? What are children doing while grown folks occupy what used to be their jobs?
During the summer months it was a current or former drug abuser with a rickety lawn mower with a single speed and height going door-to-door looking to trim the green. Just the green for now—tools for the hedges are hard to carry around with a lawnmower if you are on foot. That’s if he happened to have any tools to trim hedges in the first place. Of course he must borrow your broom and even an extension cord if his mower is powered by electricity—which is usually the case because carrying a can of gas could be problematic.
Now leaf-raking season is upon us and soon snow shoveling will arrive. Few if any kids at all can be expected to be the solicitors at our front doors. The competition for work has pushed kids out of the “chores for pay” market. For kids looking for something constructive to do, slim pickings define the current reality.
Not that kids we know are exactly assaulting barriers in pursuit of this work. Many don’t even want fast food restaurant gigs, never mind raking a lawn or delivering newspapers. We don’t necessarily believe that desperate adults have driven kids to the margins. We do believe it is important to understand that city kids who seek a less formal work experience than a regular job do not have the neighborhood opportunities that their suburban counterparts have; those “jobs” are now nearly always populated by adults of misfortune.
Our observations constantly instruct us that joblessness whether among teens or unfortunate adults is a horrendous problem and strategies for change are inevitably limited. Long gone are the days when you had to merit a job. Then, behavior was an important factor in landing a job. Character references might well have been as important as experience references. A job was a valued prize sought after with vigor. Too often now those in search of jobs believe they are entitled—even without skills or experience and even with extensive criminal records. All this presents a daunting challenge for both government and the private sector to say nothing of our educational systems.
The challenges of today have rearranged societal priorities. Jobs in urban America have become major crime fighting tools. There is an urgency to give them to people recently released from prison. In other words, people having been incarcerated for some antisocial act. In other words, the very behavior that might once have denied a person a job is the behavior that now places them at the top of the list. And when viewed in terms of the cost of crime, imprisonment and recidivism, many find it possible to justify the inverted paradigm.
So in this “new thought paradigm” we want to encourage special attention for kids. As we consider all the efforts that must be undertaken to assist the successful reentry of ex-offenders into society, there should be a special attention paid to developing strategies and initiatives that focus on juveniles. We believe that if more juveniles were in jobs fewer would be in gangs. We believe that more exposure to adults in responsible roles would help dampen juveniles’ enthusiasm for antisocial activity.
Aggressive steps to maintain a non-gang, non-criminal status for kids are essential. Every effort must be taken to ensure that they don’t fall out in the first place and thus there is no need to think about reentry. But the social dividend to be gained from effective juvenile focus strategy is worth whatever the required investment.
Newark is taking a real look and real steps to address juvenile reentry. The good news is that every juvenile that is successfully reentered is more likely not to become an adult that needs to be reentered. We must all do far more to provide opportunities for young people to be exposed to healthy influences for most of their time. Part time jobs are just one way to accomplish this but their importance cannot be underestimated.
And while we don’t expect to see a rapid return to newspaper boys and girls up and down our streets, it does make sense to incentivize the private sector to open up thousands of job and exposure opportunities to young people that do not now exist. Every company and agency should have a youth employment budget. We could absorb millions of idle hours and hands that might otherwise wind up working against our collective interest. This would not be hard to accomplish and the payoff would be indescribably handsome.
While the money that kids make from part-time jobs is important, it is no more important than the responsibility lessons they learn about being on time, being polite, finishing what you start and all the rest. The essential lessons that contribute to a civilized society and auger against antisocialism and rage are largely learned through varied exposures. And it is upon this base that a community assures its survival and improves its quality of life.
We acknowledge the societal shortcomings made obvious by adults eeking out survival in the most menial of manners available and pray that solutions are not far off. But we are convinced that an immediate pivot toward kids will yield the most sustainable good. So if you have a lawn to rake, snow to shovel or a chore in need of doing, consider a kid.
November 28, 2007