“Really poor children in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working, and have nobody around them who works. So they literally have no habit of showing up on Monday. They have no habit of staying all day. They have no habit of ‘I do this and you give me cash,’ unless it’s illegal.”
— Newt Gingrich
When Nickaro Young, Khalid Bullock and Rian Hayes heard what the GOP presidential candidate was saying about young people like them and their peers in the Congress Heights neighborhood of the District, they bristled, briefly. Then they went back to their responsibilities.
Which for Young, 16, includes walking to the IHOP on Alabama Avenue SE, where he is a host on weekends. Bullock, 17, helps out at his father’s store, Shar Retailers on Martin Luther King Boulevard SE, and last month he co-founded a nonprofit to help young people put their talent to work in the community.
Hayes, 17, is studying hard to become a lawyer, after a successful internship this past summer at the downtown law firm of Alston & Bird.
“He’s got it way wrong,” says Young, a junior at Ballou High School, who has applied for weekday work at other stores and restaurants, so far with no luck. “How would he know if he’s not where we’re at?”
“We have the desire, we just don’t have the opportunity,” says Bullock, 17, a senior at Ballou, who is waiting to hear back from Giant, Foot Locker and Starbucks, to supplement his work at the family business. “I’m looking for more experience.”
Congress Heights, where Ballou is located, is one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city’s poorest ward. More than a third of the residents of Ward 8 live below the poverty line, and the median household income is $31,188, compared with the citywide median of $56,519, according to the American Community Survey of the U.S. Census Bureau.
Hayes says Gingrich’s observation may accurately characterize some young people, but not most teens she knows.
“The kids who don’t work, they believe that getting money on the streets would be faster,” says Hayes also a senior at Ballou. “But I know more kids like myself who want to actually get a job and not get over easily by using their parents’ money or doing something illegal.”
Gingrich’s remarks at a campaign stop in Iowa ricocheted around the blogosphere and the political talk shows over the weekend. The candidate has also proposed putting children to work as janitors in schools to give them work experience.
By Monday, according to MSNBC, Donald Trump said he was inspired by Gingrich to consider creating a program for poor schoolchildren in New York City modeled on his television show, “The Apprentice.”
“It wasn’t maybe politically correct, but it happens to be the truth,” Trump said on NBC’s “Today” show, referring to Gingrich’s comments.
Gingrich, meanwhile, moved to take some of the sting out of his comments, telling reporters, according to CBS, that he was not referring to the “working poor,” but to young people in housing projects or sections where few people have jobs.
David Muhlhausen, a research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, says there is truth to Gingrich’s assertion.
“Not every poor kid lacks employable skills,” Muhlhausen says. “But there is a population, especially growing up in high poverty, high crime, high socially dysfunctional areas, that lack the work ethic that is pervasive across much of America. . . . These kids are devastated starting out in life.”
But the issue is complicated.
Youth participation in the labor market overall reached historically low levels this year, according the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The share of all young people age 16 to 24 who were employed in July (48.8 percent) — normally a peak month of youth employment — was the lowest since the bureau began keeping track in 1948.
The culprit is not simply the recession. Since the mid-1980s, the share of 16-to-19-year-olds enrolled in schools has risen, while the proportion employed has fallen, according to Teresa Morisi, a bureau economist who published research on the question in 2008. The trend holds true for whites, blacks and Hispanics; Morisi did not study rates at different economic levels.
Morisi identified such causes as “greater academic pressure and stricter education requirements,” lower real wages for teen workers and more competition from adults for retail and restaurant jobs.
At the same time, just as cases can be found of enterprising job seekers in the District’s poorest neighborhoods, it’s not hard to locate teens in more affluent areas who choose not to work.
“I heard the [Gingrich] comments and almost drove off the side of the road,” says Jerome Cole, assistant head of the Upper School at Sandy Spring Friends School in Sandy Spring. “The parents I’ve talked to, they don’t even want their kids out there doing that kind of thing — doing these low-income jobs just to get work experience. That’s been my experience with low- and upper-income kids. They’re saying they would prefer that their kids go and do internships or non-paid work where they can get experience for their careers.”
Gerren Price, associate director of youth programs in the District’s Department of Employment Services, says it is true that some young people from poor neighborhoods need “support,” in the form of mentoring, with job skills.
“They might not have been exposed to the workforce before, and their parents might not be working right now,” says Price, who directs year-round programs to address that need. “Unemployment is high. A lot of young people are in a situation where they’re not seeing people going to work every day, so that can be a challenge to employment.”
However, Price rejects Gingrich’s implication that these young people don’t want to work or can’t work. In February, when the city started accepting applications for the 2011 Summer Youth Employment Program, 7,820 young people signed up the first afternoon. In the end, 20,463 young people applied for 14,000 slots in the program, he says.
At Ballou, some students are looking for classic after-school work experiences; others are seeking career-oriented internships, says Ruth Jones, director of resource development, who, through the Ballou Partnership project, helps students land internships at banks, law firms and agencies such as the U.S. Department of Transportation.
“Kids don’t come in and say, ‘I want a job,’ they say, ‘I want an internship at DOT,’ ” Jones says.
The students say that role models for a strong work ethic are at hand — at home, in the neighborhood, in school.
“My father tells me that one day we [young people] are going to take on our own families, so we have to learn the responsibility to survive in this world,” Bullock says.
“I don’t see a lot of adults in my neighborhood who don’t work,” Hayes says. “I see them get up every morning, because I leave out with most of them.”
Staff researcher Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.