A visit to a Bronx public high school last week is a disturbing reminder of the penal quality of life for young Americans on the lower end of the economic spectrum, lower end being close to a majority, or more, a number certainly on the upswing given pervasive unemployment, structural change affecting work opportunity, the use of technology to eliminate jobs, sub-standard public education, and the rest. Officially, 27.6 percent of 16-19 year olds are unemployed, the biggest number on record; the real number is much higher and there is no relief in sight. Across the country, public schools report historic levels of overcrowding, no new textbooks, suspended after-school programs, summer school gone, all in response to the fiscal crisis caused by the credit crisis, a crisis during which banks, today, sit on in excess of $13 trillion in cash, awaiting better times, in the name of prudent investment and fiduciary responsibility. Try explaining that investment philosophy to these kids.
The school doors swing open to metal detectors.. once through, uniformed escorts are summoned to open each and every door—corridor entrances, bathrooms, classrooms, all locked. There are no sports, no computers, dismissing altogether the physical and techno-educational development of these teens. One of America’s ugly secrets is this: segregation never ended, and that is plain to see here, where the entire student body of 2,500 students is black or Latino. Suburbs, replete with traveling soccer leagues and advanced computer labs, are segregated in some large measure, too.
The setting here in this Bronx high school brings to mind county jails visited over recent years in places like Denver, Houston, Mobile, Los Angeles, where drug use, or just plain truancy, lead to teen jailing, with open-ended terms and psychiatric drugs. ..s ometimes kids are mixed with adults. What lands you in a teen mental health clinic in tony Westchester County – replete with sports and computers – gets you jailed in Watts. But that’s an old story. What does it say about our society that urban schools look, feel and function like prisons?
In a society where productivity, stock markets and profits go up as a consequence of the marginalization of the population, the future of our youth is murky, at best. Who wants to impart that lesson to kids looking for a start, for some hint of the prospect of an independent life, someday? There is no plan of this government to effectively address the chronic, grinding unemployment that is youth in Obama’s America. When there is no plan invoke “market forces” and ratchet up the foreign wars. Smooth talk for a crude course is well worn by now.
Ironically, youth unemployment here is the ultimate antidote to war, as growing segments of this country’s youth learn firsthand what’s been the fact of life in Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, Gaza for many years.. the source of terror: no work, no independence, no family, no future. What exactly is the model we are proposing to bring to Afghanistan and those other places on a list of past-present-and-future Pentagon multi-decade armed visits? Regulation of rampant insider trading? Agri-business and big pharm gouging? De-linking housing costs from wages? Penal high schools? Did the US (or French) ever act to provide affordable rice in S. Vietnam? Or anywhere in the world? Harper’s magazine reports that 300 million people joined the ranks of the daily hungry since 2003, bringing the total number to more than one billion, an increase not attributable to low food stocks, but quite the opposite: “lack of money, not lack of food” quotes Harper’s. Again, that’s something that, thanks to President Obama, growing millions of Americans can now relate to, as they line up in record numbers at food pantries for a bag or two, while down the road supermarkets are bursting with product. Food beyond sale date is dumped by the markets and recycled through food banks. That is wonder bread. (Hey, you’re unlikely to get sick eating it, and if you do, not to worry, there’s a new health plan on its way, a plan however, like food distribution, stratified by class in a way Americans can’t conceive of ….stay tuned.)
Not surprisingly, among liberal commentators there is a steady chorus of concern to the effect that the Great Marginalization is here to stay absent some creative and bold government spending to employ people. From Jeff Madrick, writing in New York Review of Books, “disappointment” with Obama’s economic offerings; New York Times’s Paul Krugman, a supporter of Obama on health care legislation, nonetheless chides him on the economy overall for “… doing too little. The fateful decision, early this year, to go for economic half-measures may haunt Democrats for years to come.” In The Nation, William Greider writes, “Far from proposing deep restructuring, Obama and his lieutenants are instead predicting prosperity around the corner…. If politicians surrender to the budget scolds, the nation will be stuck in this ditch for a long, long time.” Writing about youth unemployment, Times’s Bob Herbert puts it bluntly: “Without direct government intervention, the recession is never going to end for them.” But so far, a deaf ear from the White House.
President Obama takes the support of these liberal voices for granted, their criticism not threatening but constructive, their votes in the bag. He reasons, with data to support from his all-star West Wing: where are the liberals going to go?
But imagine a year from now, another extension of unemployment insurance the latest congressional accomplishment, that bare minimum existence now spilling over to year three of the Obama Administration… the high school graduating class of ’11 looking at a long, hot summer. Kids in the Bronx got food aid at lunch from the city last summer to avoid going hungry all day. Yes, the result of negligence and irresponsibility. But no, not on the part of their parents, friends or community for whom the meaning of “lack of money not lack of food” was grasped a long time ago . Blaming the community won’t wash a year from now, when tens of millions of Americans, some new to the list of low priority locales, face the same plight. What’s the message then?
CARL GINSBURG is a tv producer and journalist based in New York. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org