Tess Vigeland: President Obama is in New Orleans today to deliver the opening address at the Urban League’s conference. The civil rights organization is focusing, this year, on education — and jobs.
The unemployment rate for African Americans is nearly twice that of white Americans. And for young, black men it’s nearly four times higher.
From our Wealth & Poverty Desk, Marketplace’s Shereen Marisol Meraji takes us to one neighborhood in New Orleans, where unemployment and poverty go hand in hand with jail time.
Shereen Marisol Meraji: To say there’s blight in Central City, New Orleans is an understatement. Businesses have been boarded up for years, homes vacant since Katrina, and employment, scarce. But ask anyone who lives there how many people they know in prison or jail:
Voice montage: We got Boochie, Travis, which is my kid’s father…
And there’s an abundance of names.
Voice montage: Mone, Trone, Michael, Leroy, Juice, Fat, Skinny…
And those are just from a two block radius near the corner of 2nd and Dryades. Louisiana incarcerates the most people per-capita in the United States.
Voice montage: Who else, who else, who else?
That list you just heard — a majority of the names belong to black men between the ages of 18 and 40: prime income earning age. But, they’re obviously not working and when they get out finding a job is tough.
Rev. Patrick Keen: What happens when the church comes out and lays their hands on the problems of this society…
But finding a church in Central City to pray for a job, well, that’s easy because they’re everywhere.
Keen: This congregation and ministry happens to sit in a million dollar community. But it’s not the kind of million dollar community that exists on the other side of St. Charles.
Patrick Keen is the pastor at Bethlehem, Lutheran in Central City. He’s referring to the Garden District when he says “the other side of St. Charles” — home to million-dollar mansions. He calls Central City a million-dollar community because the state spends about $5 million a year, there, on prison admissions.
Reverend Keen likes to check on his flock during the week. Today, he’s going to see Ms. Lizzie Randolph. She’s been living in a modest one story shot-gun house on 2nd St. near Dryades for decades. Her great-nephews watch TV and play in the living room.
Keen says this is a pretty typical scene: grandmas and aunties watch the kids while mom’s work service jobs. And he says this is a pretty typical Central City family. Two of Ms. Lizzie’s grandsons — Michael and Travis — are in prison for selling drugs. Travis left five kids behind. Ms. Lizzie says nobody on the “other side of St. Charles” cares about what happens to kids in her neighborhood.
Lizzie Randolph: This drug thing is just gone out of control, but they’re not going to stop it, because their families are not getting hurt. Nothing is happening to them, they’re sitting wherever they’re sitting and looking at our Black kids getting caught up in all of this for a few pennies and either they’re going to end up in jail or dead.
New Orleans has the highest murder rate in the country and Central City is ground zero. When you ask why so many men get caught up in the drug game, the typical response is: what else is there to do? A local nonprofit called the Youth Empowerment Project is trying to fill that void.
Montage of kids: I’d like to give a shout out to my mom, yeah I want to shout out to my mom, and my brothers and my whole family, shout out to Apple…
Kids at its free summer camp just blocks from Ms. Lizzie’s house were eager to give radio shout-outs to family and friends. The Project also helps young adults get their GED’s and find work. Twenty-year-old Michael Brown came for help with his job search.
Michael Brown: I just came home and I started looking for work, I tried to work at the Coke plant, I tried to work at some shipyards.
He just “came home” from prison where he served two and a half years for selling cocaine.
Brown: but, by you being a convicted felon, they hesitate before they hire you. So, I’m not going to starve, I can’t just sit around like, “I can’t get no work, I’m not going to do nothing.” I gotta provide for myself.
Criminal Justice Commissioner James Carter says he hears excuses for getting back in the drug game all the time.
James Carter: You can’t always blame somebody else for one’s behavior.
Carter works for New Orlean’s Mayor Mitch Landrieu and says his office is committed to fighting crime and high rates of incarceration in New Orleans. And he lists all the initiatives he’s in charge of to make that point.
Carter: What’s called the pre-trial service initiative.
The cease fire initiative.
Carter: Re-entry initiative.
Carter: Saving our sons initiative.
But the one thing he feels is missing from the conversation:
Carter: The issue of self-responsibility. Self responsibility is very, very important to add to the mix that will ultimately also help to reduce the high incarceration rate here in this country.
Candince McMillian: Dear Mayor Landrieu, My name is Candince McMillian. As a Black American product of a single-parent, low-income household…
Candince McMillian may have grown up poor, but she’s an upper middle class contractor, now. McMillian lives on 4th and Dryades in Central City even though she doesn’t have to. She believes that you can’t fix poverty, unless you know poor people.
McMillian: You know I would hear stories like, “my mom’s on crack, I never knew my dad, I’ve got three little sisters and brothers, I have a record, nobody wants to hire me, can you give me a job, cause if you don’t I gotta get on this corner.”
In her letter to the Mayor, Candince McMillian writes about the countless mornings young men have showed up on her porch begging for something to do to keep them out of trouble.
McMillian: It seriously disturbs me that people looking in from the outside sort of draws this conclusion that the young black males or the people who are victims of the 50 million circumstances and issues that plague Central City – have just drawn a conclusion that they don’t want better. Because that’s not true, that’s not what I see, I’m living it. I can honest to God tell you this: every single person that I’ve given a chance, has done well.
McMillian understands that politicians want to make big sweeping changes. But, she says, what young black men in Central City need, right now, are jobs — whether they have a prison record or not.
I’m Shereen Marisol Meraji for Marketplace.
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