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Tuesday, October 17

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Airbags

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.

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Comments

Cinnamon / October 22, 2003 5:24 PM

It sounds like a great plan and I thank you for telling us about it. The same line of thinking applies to people who are receiving government assistance, aka welfare. If these people don't have skills, then having them work 30 hours a week at a job that teaches them nothing, in two years when they're removed from the program they'll only be able to get those same unskilled, minimum-wage jobs. But, if there are educational opportunities provided for them, they'll be off welfare and able to work at jobs where they stand a better chance of supporting themselves, and their families.

Luke / October 22, 2003 6:10 PM

What do potential employers think? With unemployment so high, are they really that eager for ex-con workers and neighbors, whatever the incentive from the government? Is there a labor shortage I haven't heard about? Isn't there a reason most job applications ask, "Have you ever been convicted of a crime?"

Is Mel Reynolds somehow behind this?

Wiz / October 22, 2003 6:28 PM

Luke, touche. There is indeed no job shortage and it is difficult for ex-offenders to get "real" work. However, you'll also note those same applicatons state, "This does not disqualify you from employment." The housing developments also would not be concentrated like housing projects, and as there would be a strict municipal support system, there's no reason to believe it would signicantly hurt property values.

As for potential employers--like the new Ford Manufacturing Plant on the South Side--there's no reason to belive they wouldn't be interested in cheap semi-skilled labor.

Luke / October 22, 2003 6:54 PM

> There is indeed no job shortage

I wrote "labor shortage" and presume you meant to as well.

> However, you'll also note those same
> applicatons state, "This does not disqualify
> you from employment."

Right. And the Luv-a-Bulls will hire regardless of age, weight and disability.

> there's no reason to believe it would
> signicantly hurt property values.

Good luck convincing a property owner of that. Bring this idea up at a block club meeting and you'll reek of rotten tomatoes for weeks.

> there's no reason to belive they wouldn't be
> interested in cheap semi-skilled labor

Except that there's already an abundance of cheap semi-skilled labor, and if I'm Joe Widgetmaker and I have to spend thousands of dollars training each new employee, I'm not going to risk a job on someone who I, rightfully or wrongfully, believe has a higher risk of absenteeism or of stealing parts to my widget machines.

If I were an industrialist and lived in an afterschool movie, I'd hire all the ex-cons I could. I'd house them and clothe them and bring them turkeys on Thanksgiving. Unfortunately, I'm not and do not, so I'm extremely skeptical of this solution, though I agree that the problem is one Chicago's biggest yet most-ignored. Shame is, I don't know what the right solution is, other than turning kids around before they get lost to the correctional system.

Wiz / October 23, 2003 4:01 AM

Although you raise valid points, I don't see how they "defeat" the purpose of this legislation in even the minutest sense. Sure, housing for ex-offenders wouldn't necessarily be a boon to property values, but neither will "mixed-income housing," yet that's going up all over the place and you don't see a mass exodus from the area. Moving to the City is the current trend and new developments are seeing a healthy, steady increase, though it has slowed considerably. Not to mention that this housing would go into the neighborhoods where these ex-offenders would be returning, anyway, so I really don't think the block clubs would throw tomatoes at me. Actually, I've witnessed the issue raised at community organization meetings (specifically, Lawndale) and the residents were supportive. There is a real grasp of reality in these neighborhoods: these people will come back one way or another. You can't lock them out. So better to guide them than to leave them to their own devices.

Obviously, being an ex-offender will not be a great asset in trying to get a job. Yet qualified ex-offenders get jobs all the time, and providing social services and training can be nothing but a positive. Nowhere did I allege that finding a job would be easy pickings for these people.

Right, there is an abudance of semi-skilled cheap labor. This is no way precludes the idea that training people with no skills will hurt anybody, unless you preferred that we maintain the competitive advantage of one group of semi-skilled laborers over another. The idea is to level the playing field, that's all.

Think about what Rep. Davis is proposing: give ex-offenders housing, training, and case-workers to reduce recidivism. What's more, give developers and corporations a serious incentive (in this case, fast-tracked city approval and major tax breaks with high-probability return in 10 years) to become involved in the process. Keep ex-offenders off of direct government assistance, wire them into social services (training, education, substance abuse treatment) so they don't feel stranded or desperate. That is what Davis is trying to do by proposing this legislation.

Despite the article's light-hearted tone, nowhere did I suggest that this first step would be a cure-all: all I said was that it was a positive, market-driven program that could appeal to liberals like myself and conservatives like whoever.

I don't see how anybody can quibble with safe housing, education, training, and intimate social services as a tool against recidivism. And the key word is, of course recidivism--a return to past behavior. Clearly keeping kids away from crime would be best, but focusing on that would have absolutely no effect on the absolute reality of some 30,000 ex-offenders returning to Chicago next year.

Luke / October 23, 2003 8:57 AM

> neither will "mixed-income housing," yet that's going up all over the place and you don't see a mass exodus from the area.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but isn't the mixed-income housing going up in areas that were formerly exclusively low-income public housing? It's not like these projects are going up in the middle of Lincoln Park or the Gold Coast. They're going up in what used to be places like Cabrini Green and Stateway Gardens. In fact, one could argue that there is an exodus involved, insofar as former residents of public housing, if they don't win the mixed-income housing lottery, are now homeless.

> you preferred that we maintain the competitive advantage of one group of semi-skilled laborers over another

In fact, I do prefer this. Someone who has kept his nose clean should have a competitive advantage over someone who hasn't, however rehabilitated he may be.

> I don't see how anybody can quibble with safe housing, education, training, and intimate social services as a tool against recidivism.

Of course not. I'm just curious if Rep. Davis has the backing of any of the cold-blooded capitalists.

Seth Zurer / October 23, 2003 9:44 AM

The biggest problem with Bobby Rush's plan, is that the city has yet to make any meaningful movement toward actually rebuilding the public housing that is currently being demolished. There are not anywhere near enough housing units to support even a fraction of residents that have been forced out of their homes by the ragin demolition in the last three-four years of the CHA's "plan for transformation". The city has no real intention of housing even the people it ahs already committed to house, let alone a large population of ex-offenders. SO I hope Bobby Rush is successful, but the city seems much more inclined to push its desperate low income public housing residents into desolate neighborhoods (where landlords accept section 8 vouchers) in the inner ring suburbs and far south and southwest sides than actually providing a supportive environment for successful living.

Seth Zurer / October 27, 2003 11:13 AM

If you'd like to hear Danny Davis speak about this issue - he's delivering the keynote address at the Community Renewal Society's (where I'm an intern) annual State of Race and Poverty meeting on November 8. Tickets to the event are $10 for students and seniors, and $20 for the general public. The meeting is in South Holland at the Covenant United Church of Christ. If you'd like any info about the event, please drop me an email or give me a call at (312) - 673-3839

 

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