As good jobs finally arrive, few Detroiters have the skills to fill them

A trench stretches down the middle of downtown Detroit.

In a city where too many people are poor and need jobs ‒ with nearly 1-in-five adults out of work ‒ taxpayers might expect many Detroiters to be hired on the crews turning the fresh ditch into a new light rail system along iconic Woodward Avenue.

If only it were so simple.

In a cruel turn, too many Detroiters lack the basic skills needed to get the jobs that are finally becoming available as the city rebuilds from bankruptcy, whether in construction, or in growing fields like healthcare and information technology. Making the situation worse, young people in the city are receiving too little training or work experience ‒ Detroit has the nation’s highest youth unemployment rate, and career training centers in the city’s struggling high schools have been cut, not bolstered, in recent years.

Even for many Detroiters receiving training, employment is no sure thing.

Training programs are full of people who have graduated from high schools with less than ninth-grade skills and can’t pass a proficiency test to get a job as a machinist or construction apprentice.

Community college classes are full of Detroiters who want in on the plentiful jobs in healthcare, but have to take remedial classes before they can qualify for certification.

And 12,000 Detroiters who looked for work last year with help from the state’s job development centers were found to have only middle-school-level reading and math skills, while most living-wage occupations require at least high-school-level skills.

The dearth of skilled labor comes as the new light-rail train is under construction, a new $450 million hockey arena project is recruiting Detroiters to apply for an expected 8,300 jobs, and the so-called District Detroit, a 50-block area from Midtown to downtown, is actively recruiting Detroiters for work. In Lansing, meanwhile, Gov. Snyder is recruiting immigrants to come to Michigan to work, start a business and employ workers from the city.

Employment experts warn that if young Detroiters are to join in the city’s hoped-for resurgence beyond bankruptcy, it is critical for schools, the business sector and policy makers to join forces to create more basic skills training programs.

"People need to realize that right now the city is in a huge transition. Things are changing quickly, the economy is improving, businesses are coming to Detroit," said Pamela Moore, president and CEO of the Detroit Employment Solutions Corp. The DESC runs the federally-funded Michigan Works! Offices in Detroit and is recruiting and training workers to qualify for jobs building the arena.

"We’ve got to stay focused on the people who’ve been here and had a tough time getting on their feet,” Moore said. “How do we provide them resources? If we don’t get on this training, things are moving pretty fast and Detroiters are going to be left behind."

How bad? Who knows

When employers and trainers talk about basic skills, they typically mean ninth-grade level reading, writing, and arithmetic abilities that entry level employment requires. How many Detroiters have little or no basic skills? It’s hard to say.

In Detroit, 77 percent of adultshave a high school diploma, and only 19 percent have an associate’s degree or higher. Even among those who graduated from high school, many have been shown to have math and reading skills more in line with a middle-school student.

Overall literacy rates are unreliable. Over the years, most recently in 2011, studies have gained national publicity by declaring that 47 percent of adult Detroiters are functionally illiterate. It turns out, those numbers go back to a study from 1993, when the city had 300,000 more people. Which doesn’t mean the statistic is wrong; only that the data is, well, dated, making it difficult for the city to gauge the current scope of the problem.

Literacy is a sensitive issue for the city’s job skills programs, which are often reluctant to share their own studies. All they will say is that Detroit’s average basic skills level is not good.

They’ve known it for years. But nobody has been able to quantify the basic skills or literacy levels in Detroit. No new studies have been undertaken in the past 20 years.

Workforce development agencies in Detroit have aligned themselves with the Detroit Regional Workforce Fund ‒ to help Detroiters get the training they need to eradicate the 18% unemployment rate.
And the passionate among them say the collaboration, late in coming, needs more resources and a measurable goal - in a hurry. A coordinated effort would help more young Detroiters like Damone Huff.

Last spring, Damone Huff, 22, took the TABE test, which gauges basic skills, at a job training center run by the Detroit nonprofit, Focus:HOPE. The results showed he was not ready to even qualify to train for a job as a machinist, a job where he could earn $12 to $16 an hour, easily. He had graduated from high school in 2010, but his math score rated him on an eighth-grade level.

The job required that he know basic principles of fractions, decimals and some geometry, Cartesian coordinates and percentages. As far as most entry-level jobs that require testing for these skills were concerned, he was unhirable.

So Huff signed up for a basic skills course at Focus:HOPE and studied math, reading, financial literacy, computer literacy and workforce readiness from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. for eight weeks. When it was over, he passed the test. Now he’s in the machinist training program at Focus:HOPE.

"I got a lot out of it. I definitely know how to do math backward and forward," he said. "A lot of people don’t stick with the training. I’m sticking with it. If you learn more, you earn more."

Huff’s story of graduating from high school with less-than-high-school skills is not uncommon.

In a sobering indictment of the public schools, a high school diploma does not guarantee that a person has even ninth-grade reading and writing skills, said Karen Tyler-Ruiz, director of the Detroit Regional Workforce Fund, the collaboration of 10 national and local, public and private funders that have committed $3.5 million for workforce development.

The average ACT score for students in Detroit Public Schools is a 16 out of 36, compared with a state average of 20. Only 3.5 percent of DPS students who took the 2014 ACT were considered career or college ready in all the ACT subjects tested (English, reading, writing, math and science) compared with 20 percent of students statewide. That's 92 college-ready children out of all the students who took the ACT in DPS. That low rate also suggests that many Detroiters looking for jobs lack the skills for entry level work, according to the DRWF.

Tyler-Luiz is encouraged by the DRWF’s creation of the Detroit Jobs Alliance, an umbrella of about 76 different municipal, private and nonprofit organizations working together to bring more work to the city. But she said too many of the city’s literacy programs still aren’t providing the kind of fast-track, practical knowledge that will get people employed.

“They do traditional classroom, basic literacy but that doesn’t tie to the workforce, doesn’t tie to a job,” she said. “ They’re not advancing anything an employer can look at and say a person is ready to move into work.”

"We know the basic skills gap is there, what is more troubling and still has no full solution is that there is not a dedicated set of resources to address it," Tyler-Ruiz said.

If schools and workforce development agencies were working toward the same goal ‒ improving the job skills of Detroiters ‒ public schools would be focusing students and adults alike on the same training and tests that employers use to assess potential workers, she said. Most employers test work skills through the TABE (Tests of Adult Basic Education) test and the ACT’s WorkKeys job skills assessment.

Intensive training can get results

High-level testing and training specifically targeted to jobs can help an adults improve their math and reading skills by several grade levels over several weeks. Workforce development nonprofits such as SER Metro-Detroit in southwest Detroit and Focus:Hope have done it for decades.

However, few Detroiters get such training. A 2011 report by DRWF, "Addressing Detroit’s Basic Skills Crisis," concluded that only about 20,000 Detroiters each year receive any basic skills training in reading and math to help pass proficiency tests in fields such as health care, construction, and manufacturing.

The report also found that only 27 percent of surveyed workforce development programs in the city serve job seekers with the lowest skills. And the vast majority of those programs are not offered in the intensive formats that are shown to yield quicker results.

It’s time for schools and employers to pool resources for more "fast track" training, said Glenda Magarrell, a project director at SER Metro, which has organized workforce training for the past 43 years.

"We deal with people with less than high school skills because they were undereducated and have been out of school a long time," she said. Using tutoring that tied to the basic skills test, a literate person can gain employable skills within two months, she said.

SER Metro is a partner in Access for All, a program that prepares people looking for jobs to become apprentices in construction skilled trades such as carpentry, masonry and operating engineers. To become an apprentice, they have to pass a basic skills test.

"There are collaborations to provide training. There are supports to get people into longer-term employment," Magarrell said. "Basic skills, literacy programs, is the first place new resources should go," she said.

Setting big goals, working as one

Despite the dozens of nonprofits, government agencies and other organizations devoted to providing job skills to Detroiters, the collaborators have yet to identify an ambitious city or regional goal for increasing basic skills and decreasing unemployment.

Does the city need to increase the number of workers who can pass basic skills tests by 10 percent this year? By 50 percent by 2020?

Big targets are part of the calculus in west Michigan, where business leaders are working together to attract businesses, retain talent and boost the economy. The presidents and CEOs of the largest firms in the region partnered with area universities to form Talent 2025

The organization seeks to make the region around Grand Rapids a top 20 economic U.S. region partly by increasing the number of western Michigan residents ages 25 to 64 who have post-high school credentials or degrees from 31 percent in 2007 to 40 percent by 2025.

That’s a biggie - a measurable goal.

West Michigan and Detroit may be facing different challenges– unemployed Detroiters need more basic skills, while western Michigan CEOs are focused on increasing post-secondary degree and credential attainment. But western Michigan’s collaboration towards a common goal is not lost on Detroit job development stakeholders.

"We don’t have a Talent 2025 goal here yet," Tyler-Ruiz said, referring to Detroit. "We need one clear strategy that we’re all working on."

Greg Handel, senior director of workforce development for the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce, said industries cannot say with any certainty how many jobs or even which types of jobs will be most in demand in Detroit a decade from now.

However, if basic skills attainment is a problem now, it’s an indicator of bigger problems moving forward. The percentage of residents who have a high school or college education are becoming the best indicators of whether residents are ready for the workforce, Handel said.

According to CEOs for Cities, a national nonprofit for urban leaders, if Detroit increased its college attainment rate by one percentage point, the region would capture $3.4 billion in additional income.

High school level skills may be considered basic skills for now, but post-high school skills will be the new "basic" as more jobs require more education, Handel said. “The number of jobs for people with a high school diploma continues to decline and the number of jobs for people with a degree continues to grow.”

Moore, president of the DESC, said while figuring out how to expand and fast-track basic skills programs, the ongoing battle among the workforce development community is to let more Detroiters know that good training currently exists.

“The state has eight learning labs in the city of Detroit,” she noted. “Get your math and reading up to where it needs to be. It’s the time to do it no matter how old you are. Sometimes, you just need to be told you can do it. I think that’s what a lot of Detroiters need.”

Detroit leads nation in youth unemployment

The youth unemployment rate in Detroit is 42.4 percent for ages 16-24, more than double the 17.2 rate for the rest of the state. For youths 16-19, Detroit has the highest rate in the country among large cities.

CityUnemployed, ages 16-19RankUnemployed, ages 20-21RankUnemployed, ages 22-24Rank
Long Beach47.9%522.0%2020.4%8

Source: U.S. Census' 2013 American Community Survey

To focus on community life and the city’s future after bankruptcy, five nonprofit media outlets have formed the Detroit Journalism Cooperative (DJC).The Center for Michigan’s Bridge Magazine is the convening partner for the group, which includes Detroit Public Television (DPTV), Michigan Radio, WDET and New Michigan Media, a partnership of ethnic and minority newspapers.Funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Ford Foundation, the DJC partners are reporting about and creating community engagement opportunities relevant to the city’s bankruptcy, recovery and restructuring.

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David M
Tue, 12/16/2014 - 8:33am
MI needs to rebuild k12 Ed and create a job training path for students who want to train for the jobs of the future. Too many kinesthetic learners are forced into college prep curricula mandated by the legislature. Create a Career Training Path and require students to test into upper high school. Too many kids are told to try college who are not ready and they are not ready for a job either. Also, they are told they are failures because they do not excel at a college prep curriculum...Hence, they stop trying or drop out. The schools/teachers get blamed while the legislature starves school funding, mandates hellish curricula and mindless standardized tests. The goal of the MI legislature is to privatize schools into for profit charter schools, not high functioning public schools. Just look at the legislation they pass or refuse to pass. Snyder's "Education Team" is a whose who of pro-corporate shills from the Mackinaw Center. Competition DOES NOT create better schools. Cooperation and nurturing does. (27 year veteran teacher)
David M
Tue, 12/16/2014 - 12:21pm
When I can stand at the school house door and stop "sub-standard materials" (IE kids/parents) from entering my supply chain...then I will gladly be managed the same way as a for-profit business. Oh wait, I can...just become a charter school. Public schools educate ALL children regardless of life circumstances.
Brighton mom
Thu, 12/18/2014 - 10:25am
No- public schools don't educate everyone regardless of skill set---this is a huge myth as they find many ways to skirt the law-even and IEP and very involved parents didn't help our child get an education in our local public school. So, we self-selected out of the public system. Now I am giving up my retirement savings to pay out-of-pocket for an education that was promised via my tax dollars. Public education has become less about education and more about empire building.
Colette Gilewicz
Tue, 12/16/2014 - 9:23am
The social contract was broken years ago (we will educate ALL our children) and we're paying the price now. What has happened to our Voc/Tech programs in public schools? What about unendorsed diplomas? How about "social promotion". I see ther results of this every day as a case worker for Dept of Human Services. Many of my clients cannot read or fill out applications for food stamps. We did a better job of educating the children of non-English speaking immigrants in the 20's and 30's than we do now.
Tue, 12/16/2014 - 9:58am
I have to agree with David M. The current republican legislature will not do anything sensible to help solve this problem because they don't see it as a problem. To them the problem that needs attention is that they have so far not delivered the public school system to for profit companies fast enough to justify additional political contributions to their re-election campaigns. We are in a bad situation and it is only going to get worse.
Bob Balwinski
Tue, 12/16/2014 - 11:07am
Years ago, it was shown that one could identify potential drop outs at about 3rd grade level. The school district I was employed by decided to institute a drop out prevention program. Unfortunately, that program initiated its components in 9th grade......a HS program when the identification came at 3rd grade. What do you think happened educationally to students showing the characteristics of becoming a drop out in 3rd grade but got no service on their issues until 9th grade? Strategies for adults to learn the basics at age 22 like Damon work because of the fiscal motivation to learn......what were the words.....the more you learn, the more you earn. Perhaps we need to start with intervention much earlier in the educational lives of our students to make sure they have grade level matching skills and the HS diploma really means attainment of HS skills. Research suggests this now as it did back then.
J Hendricks
Tue, 12/16/2014 - 11:39am
Same conversation we've been having over the last half century. It is time that the urban culture takes responsibility for a culture of dependency that has been nurtured by politicians over the years. The schools are there! Take advantage of the opportunity and feed your brain. If you slack now you have no one to blame but yourself for the future consequences of your slacking.
Tue, 12/16/2014 - 10:25pm
It's not just "urban" education. Check out some of the rural schools as well. The State of Michigan is gradually sliding into an abyss of mediocrity as full as education goes.......
Linda Pierucki
Tue, 12/16/2014 - 12:03pm
The key is K-12 education. Many here are trying to turn this into a political argument . .and it IS a political problem: just not the one you are pushing! The political problem is a strongly liberal/progressive philosophy in our school systems that places more importance on quasi-'social justice' indoctrination and interpersonal relationships than it does on basic math, reading, writing and classic social studies! The entire push for 'every child college-ready' is elitism: not every child can or should get a four-year degree . .or even a two-year degree. Removing vocational classes from schools to replace them with video game coding and all computer-based choices has not helped children who no longer even develop the fine motor skills necessary to hammer in a nail . .and certainly cant compute building materials required. Note to teaching colleges: you are supposed to be educating TEACHERS! NOT pop psychologists! Better to bring in non-degreed skilled tradesmen to teach some of these classes. And leave the politics OUT of the classroom: if you have a problem with your payscale, your students dont need to be a part of it. If you have a strong opinion on political issues, that does NOT need to be imparted to your students and should be forbidden! The legislature likewise needs to stop promoting all-computer/all-college geared education . . . because without the basics it's mostly worthless.Our poor record of 9th grade skills in diploma holders proves it.
Tim Whitney
Tue, 12/16/2014 - 12:04pm
I have worked with schools for 37 years and can categorically state that until each child enters Kindergarten with same or similar language, reasoning, and social skills not much will change. Obviously, there are other factors. Some are good teachers, which most in public schools are, ongoing staff training, safety, nutrition, etc. Do some kids slack off? Sure, so do some adults. That doesn't account for the current morass.
Tue, 12/16/2014 - 12:32pm
HIRE A VET THEY HAVE HE SKILLS AND WORK.. THEY HAVE indured LONG HOUR of work . CALL the Va call TV station to work CALL the RADIOS STATION work for ALL Veterans First in line NOW
Tue, 12/16/2014 - 2:24pm
This is a refreshing and specific break from the rhetoric of "STEM" crisis that BRIDGE and other publications have been indulging for the last several years. Too many -- when they say STEM -- actually mean "basic skills." The distinction is critical. The deficits in basic skills described here have little to do with STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) as now customarily evoked --
Tue, 12/16/2014 - 9:29pm
"Employment experts warn that if young Detroiters are to join in the city’s hoped-for resurgence beyond bankruptcy, it is critical for schools, the business sector and policy makers to join forces to create more basic skills training programs." (Pamela) Moore said. “How do we provide them resources? If we don’t get on this training, things are moving pretty fast and Detroiters are going to be left behind.” It appears that Ms. Dawsey and her employment 'experts' resources don't see there is anything an individual Detroiter has any responsibility for when it comes to their employment. For there is no mention of what Detroiters can chose to do for themselves. This suggests to me that Ms. Dawsey and her 'experts' see Detroiters being different from the rest of Michiganians. I wonder what why or how we are different. I raise this question because from what I have learned from those outside Detroit is that the individual is critical, beyond their knowledge and skills, to their employability. I read an MLive article, by Al Jones March 2, 2014 "Why won't they hire me? Kalamazoo area manufacturers provide 10 reasons," ( I wonder why Ms. Dawsey or the 'experts' don't see these issues of concern in Detroit. Similarly having talked to people from local non government organizations that assist in job placement of people that have had many barriers to overcome in getting employment. They explained that the most difficult issue to overcome remain employed is their 'work ethic.' The NGO people talked about the importance of reporting to work on time and on their schedule days, on being properply attired for the workplace (i.e. wearing sleeved shirts/blouses), respecting their peers and supervisors, using proper language (not using 4-letter words), following established/trained procedures, etc. These all seem to be within the control of the individual, a choice. I wonder why Ms Dawsey and her 'experts' didn't seem to feel that is applicable to Detroiters or of sufficient importance to include it when discussion the challenges of employment for Detroiters. We hear so much about knowledge and skills and yet if the people with the desired knowledge and skills fail to practice an acceptable 'work ethic' they will not have lasting employment. I wonder why Ms. Dawsey and her 'experts' don't consider 'work ethics' as critical an element to employment as knowledge and skills.
Tue, 12/16/2014 - 9:32pm
Thank you for the great comments. All I hear is college ready, STEM, raise the bar, demand more and everyone can excel. Oh really you are not in my world. Teach people to earn a living and function is this very complicated .world. Don't expect our corporate for profit world to be the teachers of tomorrow. Many of them need to go back to school themselves . Not everyone needs what our politicians say they need. Give some oral tests to some of these kids and you might see a few differences in how kids learn. R.L.
David M
Wed, 12/17/2014 - 10:27am
Parenting is the elephant in the room. I teach and I am a parent so I understand both sides. But I cannot teach kids who do not come to school. However, I will be fired based on their test scores...A few observations: 1) Many parents leave for work BEFORE the bus arrives. 2) Most parents do not get home from work before their student. 3) Many students fail because they do not complete homework. The whole homework issue needs serious investigation. Many kids have zero support from home. 4) Its as simple as ABCD...Attendance, Behavior, Course Completion, no Drama! But Ward and June Cleaver are not raising America's kids, very stressed out parents are. 5) More choice? It does not improve conditions, look at DPS. Five years with an EM and no improvement, $121M deficit, etc. SILVER BULLETS ONLY WORK ON WEREWOLVES AND THEY ARE FICTIONAL...Its time for serious people to sit down and figure out how to improve things based on research, not marketing and gimmicks! The work group needs to be Teachers, Administrators, Legislators, Business, Health Professionals, Finance and Tax experts. The question they need to start with is...How much will it cost to educate: 1) K-5 Gen Ed/Special Ed/High Poverty-Low Support student 2) Middle School Gen Ed/Special Ed/High Poverty-Low Support student 3) HS Gen Ed/Special Ed/High Poverty-Low Support student We need a progressive income tax and stop bumping up sales taxes. Or some other mix of property/sales/income tax. Then they need to address REAL Voc/Tech. It needs to start younger and be universal. Many counties will not levy the taxes to create Voc/Tech programs. Hopefully people are serious about doing something this time.
cap't don
Wed, 12/17/2014 - 10:37am
So, this is a good problem to have; jobs that will inspire people to reach for higher and better education. Hopefully those who are educated or trained today but are perhaps underemployed will move up to better jobs and pull others up behind them. People will learn quickly what they need to do when they see opportunity and success. Why do these stories always shift to school funding? Detroit has the highest State funding per pupil. Just throwing money at it is not the answer. School of Choice and Charter Schools will challenge the values of the Public Schools there for the better as well.
Bob Balwinski
Wed, 12/17/2014 - 7:44pm
cap't said Detroit has the highest state funding per pupil. Could you provide a site where one can see if this fact you claim is true?
Wed, 12/17/2014 - 7:31pm
There should be federal and state help in creating a new Work Progress Administration and a Civilian Conservation Corps. Legislation should be targeted statewide but particularly for the state's urban centers. With all of the blight and urban decay that exists throughout the city of Detroit, the various construction and building trades would be a prime industry to recruit urban Detroit residents for new jobs and start-up businesses. General carpentry, electrical, plumbing, heating & cooling, welding, and various related fields are all growth industries. Detroit’s skilled-trade unions should be partnering with Detroit city schools and training students in their respective disciplines, grooming them for future employment after graduation. Green Industry- A wealth of green-industry jobs can be initiated in the city of Detroit. Detroit can be a much ‘greener’ city than it is now. Creating new uses for land in the city is an absolute must. A recent Detroit News article identified agriculture as experiencing slight growth in the state of Michigan, despite the ongoing challenges of recession and unemployment. There are those who feel that an urban environment and farming can’t coexist. I disagree vehemently. I feel that there should be a City Department of Agriculture Development that encourages both large-scale commercial farming as well as smaller neighborhood-based farming communes. Schools in the city can also participate- especially with partnerships with state colleges and universities, they can have dedicated plots of land, where students can work on them for credit, especially during the spring and summer. Detroit schools can emphasize earth-science curriculums, leading to career fields as forestry, agriculture, urban planning, botany, new energy, and more. Age-appropriate green-industry jobs training for high school students, college students and non-student adults can be a long-term boost to the local economy.
Thu, 12/18/2014 - 9:46am
Factually, this is not a “sobering indictment on the public schools”, but more of an indictment on public school POLICY. Since the early 80’s (A Nation At-Risk), the “basic skills gap” has been used to position public schools as failing AND provide a rationale for a false-accountability agenda (the testing business). With that said, we all understand and acknowledge that most people are not as prepared for post-secondary lives (especially related to their work lives) – unfortunately, politicians from both parties have manipulated this fact under the guise of playing superhero (and, failing to support any meaningful or sustained solutions). Unfortunately, “basic skills” programs will continue to live the same problems that hinder public schools. The idea that any of the numerous “basic skills” tests can illuminate a person’s proficiency raises many questions. For example, the research is clearly divided on the transferability of the types of reading tasks found on such “basic skills” tests and the tasks one would do on a jobsite. Related, the ACT is only a predictor of a student’s street address -- not basic skills. Should people’s lives be hindered by measures/tests that are so problematic? The bigger problem of focusing on the mysterious “basic skills” is trying to support people in strengthening those skills in a meaningful way – i.e. trying to teach them the “basic skills.” Doing a task analysis of job duties in relation to school-to-work programs, I discovered that many of the “basic skills’ taught to people were helpful in GETTING a job not necessarily of DOING a job. Is our goal to simply help people get a job or be successful with the job?
Allan Blackburn
Wed, 12/31/2014 - 1:24am
We need to stop locking up minorities, one of the biggest forms of racism yet to exist in this country. We then have to deal with the trauma these men have endured in their lives, teach them skills and hold them accountable to pay restitution and child support. Most of them have been exposed to so much violence in their upbringing and in their neighborhoods, they live with no sense that they are going to live to old age. We also have to provide them housing that is affordable, rather than a cell block. The War on Drugs has been a convenient way to continue locking up young black males, even though their using rates are lower than white counterparts. There has been a dismal disparity between sentencing laws of crack cocaine (primarily a black person's drug) versus powder cocaine (a white person's drug). For further proof of this read; "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness." These men need to learn skills that are marketable and earn a decent wage so they can partake in family relations instead of losing them to crime and the streets. Poverty is a sickness that keeps these men down and they need to earn a decent paycheck in order to build dignity and to support their families and be the fathers they never had, thereby stopping the ongoing cycle of lost generations.
Mon, 03/16/2015 - 12:32pm
Im interested in your school