While he was vice president, Lyndon B. Johnson headed up the Committee on Equal Employment Opportunities, even though he felt it would be ineffective. Johnson thought there would have to be a cabinet-level department that would force businesses and local government to make job training and placement available to minorities and women. Naturally, this didn't thrill the historically conservative people of Texas, his home state. When pressed as to why he was so insistent on forcibly opening up job markets to minorities and women, Johnson provided one of the most sane arguments for affirmative action/safety-net capitalism ever by a public official: he called the government failure to aid those locked out "as a tremendous waste of manpower...[and] we are just throwing aside, through prejudice, one of our great assets, brainpower."
It is in this tradition that U.S. Rep. Danny K. Davis (7th -- West Side) has struggled mightily to force the U.S. government to take care of its ex-offenders. Not because he wants votes, not because such a large proportion of ex-offenders in Illinois are black, and not because he is some kind of socialist. It is because it is a waste of manpower to allow people who have made a mistake and therefore received little to no training to languish forever when they could be productive. In local economics, Aggregate Demand is the name of the game, and the way you get demand up is to add productive people who produce and consume into your economy. Yet outside of Illinois, and even outside of Chicago, the rehabilitation of ex-offenders is virtually ignored.
This is no small issue, either. Maybe in a place like Wyoming where the population is dispersed and the biggest concern is exposing moonshiners and cattle rustlers or whatever, ex-offenders can be trusted to either find their own way or while away their existence in private. However, in a place like Chicago these released prisoners tend to concentrate in already struggling neighborhoods -- where without training in basic life skills, recidivism is almost kismet.
The Justice Department is predicting that 600,000 prisoners will be released in 2004; of these, 30,000 will be in Illinois, and over 10,000 of those will come "home" to the Austin, Humboldt Park, North Lawndale, Englewood, West Englewood, and East Garfield Park neighborhoods, which have a combined population of about 330,000. In an economy as precarious as ours, having 10,000 unskilled men with criminal tendencies and criminal pasts come into the neighborhoods in one fell swoop may be fatal to the social ecology of those neighborhoods -- all of which, it should be said, are in Davis' 7th Congressional District.
The beauty of Davis' plan -- which he officially introduced as legislation a few months ago under the title of the "Public Safety Ex-Offender Self-Sufficiency Act" -— is that it isn't really about compassion, or entitlement, or "the government dole." It's a very self-consciously capitalist act -- let's take people who can't be good producers/consumers and convert them. Let's plug them into our economy and make money off them while they make money. It just so happens it's also a morally good thing to do, by any ethical standard. Remember, in theory once a criminal has served their time, they are restored as normal, fully advantaged citizens (with certain exceptions and restrictions; occasionally they lose the ability to vote, or have to register as sex offenders). So, let's as a society put aside our issues with ex-offenders and start doing business.
I actually ran into Rep. Davis as he hailed a cab outside of Alex Dana’s Rosebud restaurant on Taylor Street a few months ago, just after his very convincing appearance on WTTW's Chicago Tonight with Phil Ponce. Despite his trying to hail a cab, he was very willing to talk to me -- to his credit, since I was wearing a sleeveless undershirt and ankle socks. I asked him what the first prong of the attack would be. (As this was an informal conversation and I didn't have a tape recorder, all quotes are paraphrased).
"Housing," he replied. "These people need to be aided in finding a home. As long as they're floating around, it's harder to find a job, it's harder to focus on making their lives better. It's harder to be productive."
Fine, I thought, fair enough. Housing is universally regarded as the best detriment to recidivism. Playing devil's advocate, and wanting to see just how LBJ-esque his plan was, I pressed further.
"Wouldn't that be a drain on tax revenue?"
Rep. Davis shrugged. "Government spending would be limited. The idea is to get corporations involved. Give them incentive to build the housing."
As he was pressed for time, and I was in an undershirt, I thanked Rep. Davis and left. Get corporations involved! How brilliantly capitalist is that? The bill is actually proposed to the House Ways and Means Committee, under the "official" title of: "To amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to provide for a temporary ex-offender low-income housing credit to encourage the provision of housing, job training, and other essential services to ex-offenders through a structured living environment designed to assist the ex-offenders in becoming self-sufficient." In other words, corporations would be enticed to build the housing because as the residents become more productive, more consumer-y, the housing development would begin to generate revenue and the developers would make a solid return on their tax-breaked initial capital investment.
Many taxpayers have trouble accepting their tax dollars going "into the pockets," as they see it, of former criminals. This is because of how conservative politicians, think-tanks, and media-types portray such programs as that of Rep. Davis. It is easy to say "Look, he wants to use your tax revenue to pay for an apartment for an ex-con." Well, who wouldn't object to that!? I don't want to buy a bachelor pad for the guy who smashed all those windows on Van Buren Street last year. I hate that guy! But, of course, that's not what Rep. Davis is doing; to say so is an example of the reductio ad absurdum fallacy, reducing an argument to absurd ends.
Better to understand it for what it is. A wonderful way to target that tantalizing Aggregate Demand golden goose. A mouth-watering, money-grubbing service to capitalism: more workers! More money for everybody! More spending! Investment! Tax breaks! Revenues! Corporations! Yay!
Richard M. Daley, Mayor, has already shown his willingness to cooperate with Davis by adding to these ex-offender housing areas -- they will not be monolithic "projects" -— to create a municipal "safety net." In his recent budget address to the City Council in which he revealed his 2004 Budget, His Elective Majesty Mayor made a point of emphasizing the new Transitional Employment Program, or TEP, which would immediately serve ex-offenders re-entering communities by placing them into low- or unskilled jobs while providing options for job training and case workers to track their progress.
Liberals and Conservatives alike should rally around Danny K. Davis and support this bill and the City's efforts to create more spokes in the inexorable capitalist wheel.