Would an increase in jobs on the southeast side decrease Fort Wayne's near-record murder rate?
Members of a group calling itself the “Building Bridges to a Better Community” certainly think so, including economic development among the 10 violence-fighting suggestions it presented to City Council last month.
But if the group was right to suggest a link between crime and poverty – and it obviously was – the solution poses the classic chicken-and-egg conundrum:
Will good jobs attract a well-trained work force? Or is it the other way around?
When Community Research Institute Director Ellen Cutter presented her quarterly economic report to the Allen County Commissioners last week, she didn't mention the fact that the county has endured 41 homicides so far this year, just three short of the record. Even so, her statistics made it clear that while lack of jobs may contribute to crime, the lack of education and skills contributes to the lack of jobs.
According to Census data, she said, 20 percent of Allen County's black residents lack a high school diploma or GED. That's double the rate among whites, but smaller than among Asians (21 percent) and Hispanics (42 percent). Conversely, 46.3 of the county's Asians have earned bachelor's degrees compared to 26.3 among whites, 12 percent among blacks and 10 percent among Hispanics.
Why does this matter? Because, nationwide, blacks without a high school diploma have the highest unemployment rate – about 22 percent. And locally, Cutter said, the household media among blacks is the lowest of the major ethnic groups -- $28,132 compared to $51,751 for whites.
Intuitively, the connection seems obvious: The more you know how to do, and the better you can do it, the more you will earn. So instead of simply talking about “jobs'' – as if more minimum-wage positions will lure young men away from gangs and drugs – wouldn't a more-productive goal be to create a labor force willing and able to compete at a much higher level?
Fort Wayne Urban League President Jonathan Ray, who presented the committee's list to council, did point out that it's no coincidence that more than 40 percent of southeast-side residents lack a high school diploma. But a K-12 education is free. Why do so many people reject the gift? And although even the best teachers cannot force students to learn, why are so many schools failing to reach so many people?
To his credit, Ray has been outspoken and consistent in his determination to close the so-called “achievement gap” between white students and those in some minority groups. As he told me last year, about half of blacks students in the Fort Wayne Community Schools passed both the English and math portions of the state ISTEP tests compared to about 74 percent among whites.
And Ray put his money where his mouth was, leading the Urban League to open the Thurgood Marshall Leadership Academy – a state-supported charter schools -- on Weisser Park Avenue. “The expectation (among minorities) shouldn't be just to get by,” he said. “It should be to get A's.”
For too long, of course, many minority leaders have supported public schools even as minority students' academic performance suffered. But as Ray said last year, racism doesn't explain the gap – which is why busing and other political “fixes” won't work. Neither will fudging disciplinary records, grades or test scores, once those students enter the labor force.
Whether the Thurgood Marshall Academy ultimately meets Ray's goal of 80 percent ISTEP proficiency within three years, his emphasis on improving minority achievement is sound. The problem, of course, is that better-educated children take years to turn into better-educated, more-responsible adults. But that's hardly a reason not to start now – and to expect all schools, public and private, to expect as much from their students as Ray does.
The stakes are high: The country spends $80 billion per year on food stamps, up fourfold since 2000. More than 8.8 million Americans are receiving $260 billion per year in federal disability payments, double the 1995 rate. And in Allen County, the number of people participating in the labor force, while trending up recently, is still about 10,000 less than in 2008 – meaning a lot of people aren't even looking for work. And the county's average wage of $39,798 is nearly $10,000 lower than the national figure.
“So what does this mean for economic development?” Cutter asked. “It's a dual challenge: cultivating our work force and aggressively promoting Fort Wayne and Allen County as a place for high-skill, high-wage jobs.
“One cannot occur without the other.”
So why aren't more people talking about that?