Americans seem to have an irrepressible urge to uplift the bottom—the lumpenproletariat, to use a fancy word– no matter how daunting the mission. The federal government has spent billions since the mid-1960s (e.g., AmeriCorps) with scant success. Numerous non-profits have also sought solutions and here, too, the results are not encouraging. Now the private sector is trying its hand. With Starbucks taking the lead ($30 million from the CEO’s own foundation), corporate America (Hilton, Microsoft, Walmart, J.C. Penney, among 13 others) is rolling out a plan to create 100,000 jobs, internships and apprenticeships by 2018 targeting the 5.5 million young Americans who are neither in school or in the workforce. These youngsters (called “disconnected youth”) are predominantly non-white, poor, and are often teenage single parents. That these youngster lack any extended work experience hinders getting even to the first rung of the economic ladder.
The Aspen Institute’s Opportunity Youth Network will monitor and oversee the enterprise. All and all, this is a mega buck project supported by a Who’s Who of corporate America with access to an army of policy wonks.
Will it succeed? Absolutely not, despite its corporate capitalist pedigree. Begin by recognizing the awaiting legal pitfalls. Any effort to target black kids without a similar outreach program for whites, Hispanics, and Asians may instigate litigation and EEOC complaints. This may tie up the project for years as Aspen lawyers seek to circumvent anti-discrimination laws in employment. And if that were insufficient to impede progress, what about hiring those with criminal records? Does Walmart really want to hire ex-cons and thereby face the potential liability if one of these employs assaults a customer? Even more vexing, what about those with drug addictions? Imagine making a reasonable workplace accommodation for a chronic sex offender? Clearly, many of the most challenging cases, those most in need of a corporate-supplied opportunity, will be risky bets and would justifiably never be hired in the first place.
Far more important, a few exceptions aside, these youngster will arrive with terrible work habits and I defy any firm, within today’s legal and political environment, to overcome these liabilities. I suspect that all the well-intentioned CEO’s and their white, middle class Aspen facilitators are clueless regarding the toxic underclass culture. It will be a major struggle to get these kids to be prompt, follow directions dutifully, avoid on-the-job conflicts, speak clear English absent profanities, disdain socializing or periodic texting, function without close supervision, always dress neatly and be well-groomed (including conservative haircuts, no piercing), eschew petty thievery, control one’s temper when challenged (“dissed”) and otherwise conduct themselves according to traditional standards of a “good employee.”
Invariably, civil rights activists will condemn this training as cultural imperialism, making blacks into whites, and this argument is not easily dismissed. The Al Sharptons of the world will insist that there’s nothing inappropriate with black slang and a “black accent” in the workplace, and corporate America should accept it much like they currently tolerate immigrants who speak with a Chinese or Indian accent. Ditto for program enrollees who continue to wear their pants well below their waist or otherwise dress in the ghetto “style.”
Then add the obstacles of bringing these “disconnected youth” up to speed on simple arithmetic, an 8th grade reading level, legible penmanship and properly filling out forms. In a nutshell, corporate America, with the help of the Aspen Institute must transform deeply rooted cultural habits, habits that may even be classified as survival tools in Hobbesian inner cities. Clearly, far more is involved here than simply spending an hour or two teaching how to make a tall soy milk latte and then use the cash register to make change from a $20.
There is no need to speculate on the awaiting tribulations. The historical record is unambiguous. In the 1966 the US Department of Defense initiated Project 100,000 in which youngster normally not suitable for military service due to mental or physical problems would be inducted (drafted or by volunteering) into the US Army (the actual number in the program was between 320,000 and 354,000). Though it served the military’s need for additional manpower during the Vietnam War, President Johnson viewed it as a Great Society’s War on Poverty program. The Project’s logic seemed reasonable—military discipline, training and the need to survive under dangerous conditions would somehow transform these youngsters, including those with low IQ’s, into solid, reliable mature workers once they left the Army. As the old cliché goes, the Army would make these misfits into real men.
To condense a long story, Project 100,000 according to a 1989 DOD study failed. They were disproportionately killed in Vietnam and all the tough military training did not translate into future civilian vocational or educational success. Put another way, the policy experts at the Aspen Institute hope to accomplish what the military with its tough drill sergeants and harsh punishment could not. One can only envisage today’s reaction if an Aspen job counselor forced a trainee to do 100 push-ups in the mud or spend a few days in the brig for sleeping during a lesson on the importance of customer courtesy.
If the failure of Project 100,000 is not persuasive, remember that each one of these recruits has already passed through years of public school without being cured of their tribulations. This failure is particularly notable at schools targeting these “disconnected youth” with experienced teachers, extra-guidance counselors, and many others who for years tried to straighten these kids out. There is certainly nothing on the Aspen Institute website that hints at a more effective menu than what public schools have tried for decades. Do these wonks honestly believe that these students will mend their ways when informed that America’s top companies are investing millions in their vocational success?
To make this hopeless fantasy clear, imagine if this scheme were being pitched to the Goldman Sacks investment committee. “Ladies and gentlemen, the investment advocate would begin, I am here to ask for $10 million as our contribution to a plan supported by 16 other major corporations to transform presently troubled youngsters, many with deplorable work histories and multiple personal problems like drug addiction, into dutiful employees able to hold decent good-paying jobs. It will not be easy. The federal government has run into similar problems with, at best, only limited success. Private philanthropies have likewise largely failed nor have specialized public schools been able to overcome an underclass culture that disdains the work ethic. Due diligence also requires that I admit that the program will be overseen by the Aspen Institute, an organization with limited experience with such daunting projects. I seriously doubt that few of these youngsters would make suitable Goldman Sacks employees or any of the other firms participating in the well-meaning project. Worse, given their likely troubled job performance vis-à-vis other workers, their presence will increase the odds of being sued for perceived employer unfairness. Finally, and to be blunt, jobs that could be done by these iffy hires are already being performed, and being performed well, by immigrants and there is no labor shortage here (and immigrants are less likely to sue for workplace discrimination). So, ladies and gentlemen, do I have your authorization to make this $10 million investment?”
Now for the troubling question: why would 17 generally hard-headed profit-driven firms flush millions down the toilet in a scheme they undoubtedly know to be doomed? Leaving aside the possibility of gross stupidity or airhead idealism, or that this a marketing ploy targeting bleeding heart do-gooders, let me suggest that the effort is all part of “corporate conservatism” to sustain the political status quo by going through the motions of “helping the downtrodden.” Capitalism needs domestic tranquility, and from a long-term political perspective, trying to uplift the lumpenproletariat is a sound investment even if the initiative fails. The real and unstated measure of success is not rescuing a few youngsters mired in a tangle of pathologies; the real metric is achieving a politically quiescent under-class. As with primitive tribes sacrificing goats to ensure a good harvest, there is something beneficial about taking action, no matter how futile, and in today’s political climate, making a doomed effort is far better than confessing that certain problems are intractable.