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Opinion: Change Needed to Solve Inequality in D.C.

by Borderstan Contributor — December 23, 2015 at 12:30 pm 0

Oberting Dave Hi Res Head ShotDave Oberting is a candidate for an at-large seat on the D.C. council in the November 2016 election.

The views and opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Borderstan.

I was born into a middle-class Midwestern family. Both my parents were teachers. They stayed married to each other for 37 years until my father passed away about a decade ago.

The neighborhoods I grew up in were safe and secure — the kind of neighborhoods where you could leave your door unlocked at night. Crime never entered my mind because there wasn’t any.

I spent twelve years in Catholic schools. They weren’t great schools, but they were safe. Aside from the occasional fist fight, there was no violence. There were no metal detectors. We learned the basics.

There was never any doubt that I would go to college — both my parents had master’s degrees. There was also never any doubt that my parents would pay for it so that I graduated debt-free.

And most importantly, there was never any doubt that there would be a good white-collar job waiting for me when I graduated with a clear pathway to a successful career. And here’s the key to my story — I took it all for granted. It was an entitlement. It was the definition of the American dream and it was mine by right.

We probably all define white privilege in different ways. For some, it’s a myth. For me, it was the right to pursue the American dream without obstacles or roadblocks.

Many African-Americans in the District of Columbia, and around the country for that matter, have been systematically denied the kinds of educational, economic and job opportunities that the typical Borderstan reader takes for granted.

Look at a typical African-American child born in the District today: that child has a 72 percent chance of being born to a single mother. That child has a 47 percent chance of being born to a single mother who lives in poverty. That child will live in a District where poverty has grown steadily since 1989.

That child has a 40 percent chance of never graduating from high school, and as an adult, he or she will have a 20 percent chance of being unemployed, and a 39 percent chance of living in poverty themselves.

If that child is a boy, he will be eight times more likely to spend time in prison than a white D.C. resident.

The median income for white District residents in 2014 was $113,631. The median income for African-Americans was $41,394. That child will also grow up in a District that has become steadily less equal for the past 40 years.

Most critically, the median white household in the U.S. in 2011 had a net worth of $111,146, while the median net worth of an African-American household was $7,113. There are many elements of racial justice, but when I think about District residents, what comes to mind first is finding some justice of the economic kind, which is primarily about the availability of and preparedness for good jobs.

Every District resident, regardless of skin color, is entitled to the privilege of taking a good education, good job training, and a good job for granted. Right now, they’re not getting it.

Sometimes we forget the full name of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s pilgrimage to the nation’s capital in 1963 was the “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” It was no typo that “jobs” came before “freedom” in the title. Dr. King knew the right to a decent full-time job is the most fundamental entitlement there is and the cornerstone of human freedom.

Here is what I believe: there is no justice without economic justice and there is no economic justice without economic growth.

The District government owes every African-American D.C. resident (and every other resident) an economy that grows fast enough to create a sufficient number of good jobs.

Since 2007, D.C.’s economy has grown at an average rate of 1.28 percent. That’s just not fast enough to get it done. The U6 unemployment rate (a broader measure of unemployment) is 11.6 percent.

For District residents who don’t hold a four-year college degree, the unemployment rate is 22 percent. The unemployment rate for white D.C. residents is 4.1 percent, for African-Americans it’s 20 percent.

If you agree the District’s economy isn’t growing fast enough, then it needs to be stimulated. Since there can be no deficit spending, what’s left are serious reforms to our tax and regulatory systems. Making the District a better, easier and less expensive place to do business is a prerequisite for the faster growth that creates more good jobs.

Secondly, too many District residents have not had the opportunity to acquire the skills that permit them to succeed in the middle-class jobs that do exist, and the ones that will exist in the first half of the 21st century. This is a failure, over two generations, of our education and workforce development systems.

Anyone who is pleased with the progress of either hasn’t been paying attention. We spend $125 million per year on job training that is largely obsolete and ineffective, and we do little to actually connect the graduates of that training to meaningful employment.

We are eight years and over $16 billion into “school reform,” but our results continue to lag. Yes, there has been some educational progress, but it hasn’t come nearly far enough, fast enough.

They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. We’ve been executing on the same economic and education policies for two generations. Thousands of District residents have paid the price.

It’s time for a little anger and it’s time for a change.

Follow Dave Oberting on Twitter or email him at [email protected].

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