WESTERHAUS-RENFROW: Lessons from the War on Poverty

December 1, 2012

Charlotte Westerhaus-RenfrowAmerica has come so far, having elected a black president to a second term, mainly by women, young and non-whites.

Yet, I hear all too often that Indiana companies cannot find qualified African-American workers.

While employers bemoan a shortage of people with the right skills, African-Americans continue to suffer the disproportionate brunt of economic woes—especially in Indiana due to the loss of manufacturing jobs. Indiana is one of seven states where the average income of the poorest households has fallen since the 1970s.

Obama did little in his first term to lead a national conversation on race relations or to grapple with the staggering unemployment rate for people of color. He should in his second term.

Obama should look back to the accomplishments of the War on Poverty, the programs that brought minorities into the work force 30 years ago, and bring them back with a new focus on increasing private-sector employment for African-Americans and all low-income Americans.

It isn’t a mystery why so many who are willing to work are passed over for lucrative jobs in science, technology, engineering and health care fields. They don’t have the skills.

This skills gap is perplexing. Survey after survey shows poor African-Americans often rate education more highly than whites. African-American children enter school with test scores fairly close to those of whites their age. And when African-Americans and whites have the same 12th-grade test scores, blacks are more likely than whites to complete college.

Yet, the reality is that African-American teens’ academic performance has not significantly improved during the past 30 years. Presently, on average, African-American high school seniors read and perform math at the same level as 13-year-old white students. The academic achievement gap is a national tragedy.

Plus, don’t discount the culture gap. Private-sector employers might find this difficult to comprehend, but many African-American employees’ careers are stunted by corporate cultures saturated with bewildering hierarchies, alien business values and ethnocentric traditions. They are intimidated with more intense scrutiny than those of whites, working in a union-free environment and trying to figure out who the real boss is.

War on Poverty types of programs help bridge these gaps.

As a teenager in the summers of 1970 through 1972, I got a job through the Summer Neighborhood Youth Program, which provided work experience for low-income youth. I worked at my high school’s administration office, where I learned how to work with administrators as we busily prepared for the opening of the school year.

This experience taught me the “middle skills” of how to take direction from a supervisor, work in a team, and solve problems. Most important, I worked directly for my school principal. I saw leadership in action, thus was inspired to be a leader.

Every two weeks, I met with a program coordinator, and as a result of my stellar attendance, attitude and work performance, I received a field trip to the University of Toledo, the first time I visited a residential college campus. To no surprise to my parents, I accelerated my high school course work and enrolled at Ohio University at the end of 11th grade.

The Nixon administration ended the War on Poverty programs in 1973, and while federal and state job programs remain for the unemployed, low-income and at-risk youth, none have similar heightened federal oversight, investment and job creation success.

Bring back these kinds of programs, coupled with strategies that bridge academic achievement and skills gaps, and just maybe Indiana business will get the African-American employees it says it wants and, in reality, it desperately needs.•

• Westerhaus-Renfrow is a visiting lecturer at the Kelley School of Business at IUPUI, president of Higher Ed Consultants LLC, and a former vice president of diversity and inclusion at the NCAA. Comment at ibjedit@ibj.com.


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