In Wilmington, Dover and other communities up and down the state – unemployed young adults who might otherwise be hard at work are instead spending their afternoons on street corners or front stoops.
These young adults are ready, willing and able to work. They would like to work and earn an honest day’s pay, but they can’t find a job.
In Wilmington alone, the unemployment rate is chronically higher than the state average. Among African-American men, it’s double. In many ways the issue is systemic. Since the economic meltdown of 2008, chronic joblessness has led to a spike in violent crime in Wilmington and Dover.
It is an issue that has received extensive coverage in the newspaper, and is now the focus of a one-act play written by Wilmington’s Gregory Lloyd Morris, dubbed “#Blackjobsmatter, A Wilmington Experiment.” Looking at the plight of Wilmington’s 9,000 unemployed black men through the eyes of six people, the production ponders the potential consequences of major structural urban unemployment.
Now that the curtain has fallen on that show, the General Assembly will have a real opportunity to do something about this issue once and for all.
That’s because the “Work-a-Day, Earn-a-Pay” Task Force in December 2015 proposed a new jobs program for our state, called “WDEP.” The premise is simple: working with partners in the private and nonprofit sectors, we can put people to work on a wide range of community and public works projects as day labor at a fair working wage. Workers will learn and earn on the job, they will be coached on common sense work ethics and learn teamwork that builds character, which will help them land future jobs.
Recommendations of the task force that met last fall include a wide range of public works projects. Projects include cleaning up our parks, maintaining trails, river and stream banks cleanup and local government public works projects. Historically, President Franklin Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps and Works Projects Administration mirrored this idea.
Those Depression-era jobs programs were critical in giving ready-to-work Americans a new opportunity to earn money and maintain their dignity through honest labor. They also brought America’s economy back from the brink.
These are the factors that prompted me to fight for new opportunities by saving blue-collar jobs at the Port of Wilmington, creating the Jobs Tax Credit program and continuing the fight to raise Delaware’s minimum wage this year.
With a combination of state support and private investment, “WDEP” has the potential to create even more opportunities by providing training in construction trades through the renovation of vacant and boarded up homes in Wilmington and other communities. When the work is done, those homes could be sold or rented as affordable housing units and money recycled for more housing renovation projects.
Such a program accomplishes several goals:
• It provides valuable skills training that can translate into future job opportunities.
• It attacks blight, which also plays a role in restoring community pride and curbing crime.
• It assists with meeting Delaware’s desperate need for affordable housing.
Similar programs have enjoyed success in big cities around the country. And given Delaware’s size and population, we are the perfect place to test-market the concept on a statewide basis.
When the General Assembly comes back to work in March, I plan to introduce formal legislation creating the program, which I hope can be funded as a pilot with a modest $2 million investment from the Delaware Economic Development Office’s Strategic Fund or outstanding bank-settlement funds.
My goal is to leverage those public funds with private sector donations, and have projects identified that will allow us to hit the ground running.
This is a critical investment in the future of our cities and towns in Delaware. We know the downside of doing nothing – it made the cover of Newsweek Magazine.
It’s well past time we write our own, new story.