A few months ago I went to Albany by train and took a taxi to the Capitol. I was the only one in the cab. My driver was my age - late 50's, early 60's - and white, and clearly not in a good mood. He took one look at me and immediately turned up the volume on his radio, with a rabidly conservative talk show host excoriating President Obama for "appeasement" of unfriendly foreign nations and describing the president as worse than Neville Chamberlin. The driver kept pounding his steering wheel in agreement. It was obvious that my driver didn't know who Neville Chamberlin was, but his anger was heartfelt and very real. It was my perception that he felt that things weren't going well for him and he was blaming Obama, liberals, and non-whites for everything that hadn't worked out for him. He wanted to let me, a middle aged, middle class, black professional, know how he felt. I skipped the tip.
It would be easy to dismiss this as another racist, disaffected white male, alienated by the image of the first black president and governor, and steadily feeding on a diet of inflammatory Fox News commentators. But I believe he's symptomatic of a political crisis in the making that goes much deeper than whether the Democrats suffer a setback in the mid-term elections. Even as economists are reaching a consensus that the recession is ending, there seems to almost universal agreement that high rates of unemployment will persist through 2014 and possibly beyond.
The Obama administration started to address this in last week's Jobs Summit. My concern is that even progressive policy makers seem to want to skip some of the harsh realities of the preparation of America's workforce that have been allowed to drift for decades under Democratic and Republican administrations. The education system keeps having small "reforms" (charter schools, vouchers, new national standards), but is still dependent on local property taxes and no national enforcement of a standard curriculum or funding level, far less minimum teaching qualifications or accountability. This has led to an education system which still doesn't measure up to other parts of the developed world. Even if we credit the new reforms with the ability to transform the system, it will take at least a decade before we see benefits for America's workforce.
So now we are looking at a Great Recession that's going to have a long period before jobs recover, particularly for those without a high school diploma. A New York Times article on December 3rd reported that unemployment rates for black men without a high school diploma have reached 24.2 percent - for white men, 13.8 percent. This gets back to my taxi driver. Before we start looking for innovative green jobs to bail out the economy, we better pay considerable attention to the bottom of the labor market, which inevitability will be forgotten about because it requires working with individuals who have deep educational deficits.
In a recent report on GED passage that the Community Service Society issued, "From Basic Skills to Better Futures: Generating Economic Dividends for New York City," we found that over a million New York City residents lacked a high school diploma. In order even to get into the construction trades requires a high school diploma and Starbucks is giving preference to staff with some college.
The danger of overlooking this group is fairly obvious: for white men without a high school diploma - a group who sees very little hope - to be convinced by the tabloids that the reason they can't get ahead is immigrants, minorities, liberals - the list goes on growing exponentially as high joblessness goes on. For the black and Latino poor in urban areas, the further deterioration of conditions in inner cities and, perhaps as significantly, a growing sense of political apathy - because the election of a black president hasn't led to economic improvement. The apathy will lead to a significant loss of political clout for progressive policies.
As a short and medium intervention, the administration has to come up with jobs, education, and training that doesn't try to white wash the country's failure to educate its workforce to the most minimum levels. WPA-like programs that focus on infrastructure and include getting each participant a high school diploma is probably the only way to give both these groups - white and black - some buy in, and provide some political stability for the rest of us.