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C. Fraser Smith: Saying yes to jobs that matter

Some years ago, Del. Joe Owens of Montgomery County earned a not-so-funny nickname: the Abominable No Man.

Not so funny if you wanted some positive action from Owens, for years the implacably powerful House Judiciary Committee chairman.

Del. Owens said “No” to all kinds of legislative ideas. He particularly disliked what he called “60 Minutes Bills.” These were proposals based on stories done by the Sunday evening news show of the same name.

New legislators were the culprits. These were people who thought “best practices” should be adopted even if they came from the media. Imagine that.

Owens had a point, up to a point. Journalists were finding issues and illuminating them in a way only they could. Some of these ideas would have led to good law or to the tightening of focus on laws and policy already on the books.

I was thinking of Joe last Sunday while reading The New York Times.  On its editorial page, under the headline “The Crisis of Minority Unemployment,” editors laid out a way to address the issue of African-American and Hispanic unemployment. A crisis, they said

First the problem.

In New York and Chicago, the Times reported, 30 percent of young black men are not working or in school. Idle in other words. Unproductive, prone to “despondency, health problems, and a socially corrosive brand of hopelessness.”

“The viability of entire cities” is at stake, the newspaper said.

After last April’s Freddy Gray upheaval who could resist that contention?

In Baltimore, the unemployment rate for young black males is 37 percent – greater than New York’s or Chicago’s. Hiring has improved since these figures were collected in 2013, but the trend continues, according to Anirban Basu of the Sage Policy Group, an economic policy and consulting group in Baltimore.

Why, then, is a major jobs bill missing from the talked-about bills in in this year’s General Assembly? A great deal of attention goes the issue of policing reform – the law enforcement officers bill of rights and related matters. Fair enough. The Gray death in police custody made these efforts compelling.

But no more so than the financial plight of neighborhoods like Sandtown-Winchester, where Freddie Gray lived. It took no time for various observers to point out that Gray grew up in precisely the environment the Times outlines: despair, to give it a single name. When the problem is clear and no one acts decisively to solve it, despair is the result.

“The outrage,” the Times asserts, is that there are strategies … that could help rescue a generation of young from failure and oblivion.”

“Government subsidized employment” has shown real potential, the newspaper says. It created 200,000 jobs, helped businesses through the 2008-down years. The subsidized workers were kept on as regular employees.

Then the program was scuttled by congressional Republicans as “useless” (the Times’ characterization). Since there is little likelihood of a GOP change of heart, the newspaper urges states to step into the breach.

Marylanders who want to give Baltimore  a chance to survive – and to give young black and Hispanic men a chance for a useful and fulfill life — should beat the drums for this idea. Or for any other idea along these lines.

Nothing much has happened so far. Some church-based efforts such as “Turn Around Tuesday,” which seeks to counter despondency and despair with practical job-hunting guidance, have been started. But much more is needed.

Someone, you would think, might observe that a $20 million boost is about to be offered an aerospace corporation to keep 10,000 jobs in this state. That carrot is too tasty and nourishing an opportunity to ignore.

Why not require this company and others to hire some young men, provide whatever training is needed and help Baltimore and Maryland avert a crisis.

We are about to hear job development ideas from candidates for mayor. Voters should judge these proposals for their innovations and sense of urgency.

Is it possible that one of the wealthiest states in the nation will ignore this devastating human condition? Significant action would be a signal: All hope is not lost. Do not despair.

Maryland needs an “Immovable Yes Man” on this one.

C. Fraser Smith is host of Inside Maryland Politics on WYPR. His column appears Fridays in The Daily Record. His email address is fsmith@wypr.org.