There are a few people in Congress who aren't shying away from plans that call for spending to create jobs in the long term.
New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand made a three-borough tour of the city Tuesday advocating for the federal “Urban Jobs Act” that would provide an initial $20 million in grants to national non-profit organizations, and then an additional $10 million over four years, in partnership with local community groups, to provide job training for at-risk minority youth, aged 18-24.
Gillibrand hit Harlem with bill co-sponsor Rep. Charles Rangel, the Bronx to hold a roundtable with religious leaders, and then she finally stopped at the Make the Road New York headquarters in Corona, Queens. Sen. Gillibrand lamented the fact that the unemployment rate for minority youths in urban communities in July was 39 percent for African Americans and 36 percent for Hispanics — more than three times the national average. She positioned the problem (not new to this recession) in an economic perspective.
“When these youth aren’t employed and aren’t pursuing their dreams to become entrepreneurs or small business owners or becoming experts in any given field, we are losing out as a people," Gillibrand said. "As an economy, if they were in the work force they would be creating so many more revenues, so many more opportunities for economic growth.”
The bill was first introduced in the House in February by Rep. Edophus Towns but did not gain traction.
The Senator’s announcement came while President Obama tours the Midwest to drum up support for his economic plans. Growth in the U.S. economy is in high tech areas, the Senator said, and her proposed legislation would focus on training youth for jobs in those sectors. The program would depend on organizations like Make the Road New York to do the day-to-day training, and such community organizations would have to affiliate themselves with a national non-profit and then apply for the grants.
Sen. Gillibrand appeared quite comfortable in the setting of a community organization that works with minority and immigrant youth, many of whom were sitting in the audience. Ana Maria Archila, Co-Executive Director of MRNY, said Sen. Gillibrand has created a space in her political map to address issues of importance to this community, and has visited the area a number of times. In particular, Archila commended Gillibrand for her support of the DREAM Act, which would benefit undocumented immigrant youth. “She was kind of courageous in taking those steps that highlighted the specific experiences of immigrant youth in that moment,” Archila said.
Giovanni Matos is a model of how the Urban Jobs Act would work. He is 22 years old and has aspirations to be a high school English teacher. A few years ago, Matos dropped out of high school, had some troubles with the law, but ultimately achieved a high school diploma and is now applying to go back to college. Matos attributes his involvement with MRNY, where he is now the media coordinator, with getting him on a focused path. He thought Gillibrand’s proposal has potential.
“It can work as long as there are organizations that put in the effort to use that money diligently and provide the support that young people need. MRNY did it with me and there are millions of others who have a similar story as me,” he said.
Gillibrand’s proposal comes two weeks after Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced he would spend nearly $130 million—$30 million of it from his own personal funds, $30 million pledged by successful investor George Soros, and the rest matched by the city—on an initiative to improve the prospects of black and Latino young men.
The Urban Job Act, on the other hand, will certainly not benefit from as smooth a funding scheme. Congress hasn’t shown any signs of approving spending bills as of late—but this did not seem to discourage Sen. Gillibrand.
“I think there’s this call to action across the country demanding bipartisan solutions and I think those who do not participate in this debate will lose their elections next time. That’s what our democracy’s all about and there needs to be that level of accountability.”
In reality, this is a job-training program, not a direct job-creation program, and it’s unclear where these youth would find jobs even assuming the bill does pass. But Archila said it would help to reconfigure the conversation.
“The most important contribution the act will make is putting the issue of disconnected youth at the center of the debate around jobs and economic opportunity,” Archila said.