My last two posts have dealt with the racial unrest in Ferguson MO and how American society should respond to the basic underlying causes. In particular Omaha NE where I live is in the process of setting up a large scale pilot project in early childhood education to better prepare children from low-income families to succeed in school.
The St. Louis Post Dispatch had a recent article “Frustration in North County Has Deep Economic Roots” pointing out, for example, that unemployment for young black men in St. Louis is 47% compared to 16% for young white men. Said the author, David Nicklaus, “If police tactics were the spark which set off the explosion in Ferguson this week, then poverty and hopelessness were the tinder. Those in charge of the police can begin the healing process, but it won’t be complete unless we tackle the deeper economic issues too.” The Equality of Opportunity Project at Harvard University has published a chart (above) showing the degree of upward mobility for children born into low-income families in different parts of the country. Omaha ranks much higher than St. Louis but not as high as it could. The current unemployment rate in Omaha is 3.8% which essentially represents full employment. This means that there are plenty of jobs available for well qualified applicants. However the above chart shows the extent of the achievement gap in metro Omaha between middle class children and children living in poverty. It is already substantial for fourth grade reading proficiency and becomes much worse in the higher grades. Conclusion: in Omaha NE the root cause of lack of economic opportunity for racial minorities living in poverty is not the availability of jobs but the inadequate educational achievement to hold a good job.
Omaha is a prosperous community in a prosperous state. But it could do a better job of educating children living in poverty.
As racial tensions begin to ease in Ferguson MO, it is natural to inquire about the root causes of this turmoil and how to avoid future recurrences. Of course, police brutality and public distrust were the triggering events and need to be thoroughly investigated by the proper authorities. But the problem goes deeper than this. The above chart from Think Progress demonstrates the very high unemployment rate among black teenagers. Is it surprising that idle teenagers get into trouble?
Omaha NE, where I live, is not immune to these problems. In 2011 Nebraska had the worst black homicide rate in the nation at 34.4 per 100,000 population, just ahead of Missouri with a rate of 33.4. Black unemployment in Omaha is estimated to be 20% compared with Omaha’s overall unemployment rate of 3.8%.
The problem goes still deeper yet. To be employable, black youths need to become educated, i.e. to stay in school and remain on track to graduate. This, in turn, means that they need to succeed in school from the very beginning, for example, by being proficient in reading at the end of third grade.
My last post, “Responsibility Goes Along With the “Good Life,” describes steps that are now getting under way in Omaha to turn around this whole vicious downward spiral of destructive black teenage behavior. The Buffett Early Childhood Institute has put together a long range plan to work with children in poverty from birth to age eight to make sure that they are prepared to succeed in school. It is funded by an annual property tax levy of $5 per $100,000 of assessed valuation throughout the two county metropolitan Omaha area. With such a local funding source, the program will inevitably receive much public attention.
Nebraska is aware that not all of its residents share in the “Good Life” and is making a conscious effort to find its own solution for a very serious national problem.