The Kerner Commission (1968)

Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (Summary, Chapter 7)

Chapter 7—Unemployment, Family Structure, and Social Disorganization

Although there have been gains in Negro income nationally, and a decline in the number of Negroes below the “poverty level,” the condition of Negroes ill the central city remains in a state of crisis. Between 2 and 2.5 million Negroes-16 to 20 percent of the total Negro population of all central cities live in squalor and deprivation in ghetto neighborhoods. Employment is a key problem. It not only controls the present for the Negro American but, in a most profound way, it is creating the future as well. Yet, despite continuing economic growth and declining national unemployment rates, the unemployment rate for Negroes in 1967 was more than double that for whites. . Equally important is the undesirable nature of many jobs open to Negroes and other minorities. Negro men are more than three times as likely as white men to be in low paying, unskilled or service jobs. This concentration of male Negro employment at the lowest end of the occupational scale is the single most important cause of poverty among Negroes. In one study of low-income neighborhoods, the “subemployment rate,” including both unemployment and underemployment, was about 33 percent, or 8.8 times greater than the overall unemployment rate for all United States workers. Employment problems, aggravated by the constant arrival of new unemployed migrants, many of them from depressed rural areas, create persistent poverty in the ghetto. In 1966, about 11.9 percent of the nation’s whites and 40.6 percent of its nonwhites were below the “poverty level” defined by’ the Social Security Administration (currently $3,335 per year for an urban family of four). Over 40 percent of the nonwhites below the poverty level live in the central cities. Employment problems have drastic social impact in the ghetto. Men who are chronically unemployed or employed in the lowest status jobs are often unable or unwilling to remain with their families. The handicap imposed on children growing up without fathers in an atmosphere of poverty and deprivation is increased as mothers are forced to work to provide support. . The culture of poverty that results from unemployment and family breakup generates a system of ruthless, exploitative relationships within the ghetto. Prostitution, dope addiction, and crime create an environmental “jungle” characterized by personal insecurity and tension. Children growing up under such conditions are likely participants in civil disorder.

Chapter 17 — Recommendations for National Action – EMPLOYMENT

Pervasive unemployment and underemployment are the most persistent and serious grievances in minority areas. They are inextricably linked to the problem of civil disorder. Despite growing federal expenditures for manpower development and training programs, and sustained general economic prosperity and increasing demands for skilled workers, about two million-white and nonwhite-are permanently unemployed. About ten million are underemployed, of whom 6.5 million work full time for wages below the poverty line. The 500,000 “hard-core” unemployed in the central cities who lack a basic education and are unable to hold a steady job are made up in large part of Negro males between the ages of 18 and 25. In the riot cities which we surveyed, Negroes were three times as likely as whites to hold unskilled jobs, which are often part time, seasonal, low-paying and “dead end.” Negro males between the ages of 15 and 25 predominated among the rioters. More than 20 percent of the rioters were unemployed, and many who were employed held intermittent, low status, unskilled jobs which they regarded as below their education and ability.

The Commission recommends that the federal government:

* Undertake joint efforts with cities and states to consolidate existing manpower programs to avoid fragmentation and duplication.

* Take immediate action to create 2,000,000 new jobs over the next three years–one million in the public sector and one million in the private sector-to absorb the hard-core unemployed and materially reduce the level of underemployment for all workers, black and white. We propose 250,000 public sector and 300,000 private sector jobs in the first year.

* Provide on-the-job training by both public and private employers with reimbursement to private employers for the extra costs of training the hard-core unemployed, by contract or by tax credits.

* Provide tax and other incentives to investment in rural as well as urban poverty areas in order to offer to the rural poor an alternative to migration to urban centers.

* Take new and vigorous action to remove artificial barriers to employment and promotion, including not only racial discrimination but, in certain cases, arrest records or lack of a high school diploma. Strengthen those agencies such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, charged with eliminating discriminatory practices, and provide full support for Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act allowing federal grant-in-aid funds to be withheld from activities which discriminate on grounds of color or race.

The Commission commends the recent public commitment of the National Council of the Building and Construction Trades Unions, AFL-CIO, to encourage and recruit Negro membership in apprenticeship programs. This commitment should be intensified and implemented.

Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders Part 1 (The Kerner Commision) 1968

(2006) Poverty, Inequality, and Race.  As part of the “National Media Forum on Poverty, Inequality and Race: 40 Years after the Kerner Commission,” journalists and others talked about topics such as lack of media coverage of race and class; coverage of poverty, inequality, and race by reporters with no real-life experience of these; urban violence; diversity in media news rooms; and coverage of the Hurricane Katrina aftermath. After their presentations the participants questioned each other and responded to audience members’ questions.   The Milton Eisenhower Foundation is the private sector continuation of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (the Kerner Riot Commission) and the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence (the National Violence Commission).

(2008)  What Together We Can Do: A Forty Year Update of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders  (Executive Summary, Preliminary Findings and Recommendations)

Top Ten Finding 5. Jobs and Economic Performance.   Over the last 40 years, inclusive demand side economic policy that creates tight labor markets has been proven to perform better for the poor and for working class and middle class families than exclusionary, trickle down supply side economics that favor the rich, provide welfare to deregulated corporations and tell average Americans they’re on their own. Nonetheless, in part through effective public relations spin and corporate lobbying, failed supply side economics dominated policy during much of the time since Kerner Commission, up until the financial crisis of 2008.

The Kerner Commission concluded that unemployment and underemployment were the most important causes of poverty, yet African American unemployment has continued to be twice as high as White unemployment during each of the 4 decades since 1968. The employment prospects of the nation’s out-of-school 16-24 year old men have declined considerably since 2000. The economic condition of African Americans is much worse today than in 2000. Home ownership rates, family incomes, wages and employment are declining. The number of African American exoffenders struggling to find employment is constantly rising. Among high school drop outs aged 19, only 38 percent of African Americans are employed, compared to 67 percent of Whites. As overall American unemployment moved up to 6.5 percent in Fall 2008 (with 10.1 million Americans unemployed).

Policy Recommendation 2.  Jobs and Economic Policy.  New demand side, Keynesian economic policy should empower American workers; communicate to the poor, working class and middle class that they need to band together; strengthen union organizing; link job training to job creation; and reverse the deregulation of corporations that has led, among many other problems, to the mortgage credit crisis that has had such devastating impact on working class and middle class families. Specifically, the existing Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act should be strengthened to require the Federal Reserve to take action whenever the overall unemployment rate rises above 4 percent. The minimum wage needs to be raised to one-half of the average wage for blue collar workers and nonmanagers, and then indexed to that level. Universal health care and an increase in the Earned Income Tax Credit need to be enacted to further empower workers. The Employee Free Choice Act should be legislated to protect workers who seek to form unions.

A new Employment Training and Job Creation Act should replace the outmoded and ineffective Workforce Investment Act and the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program. The new Act should give equal priority to the poor, the working class and the middle class – including people who have lost their jobs to outsourcing and, more broadly, to the inequities of globalization. A new American job training and retraining system should draw on existing successful American job training models, like the Center for Employment Training, as well as take lessons from successful models in other industrialized nations, like Germany. Trained and retrained American workers should be linked, as first priority, to jobs in sectors that need to be developed in the national interest – like health care, housing, school repair and construction, mass transit, other infrastructure development, energy and green technologies.

In response to the current recession, creation of these jobs should be central to a Keynesian economic stimulus package. Here we need to remember that, in the 1930s, President Franklin Roosevelt’s initial fiscal stimulus was insufficient to reverse the Great Depression. (The fiscal stimulus of World War II finally turned around the economy.) It therefore will be important for the Obama Administration to create a fiscal stimulus that, in the words of the Kerner Commission, is at “a scale equal to the dimension of the problems.” The policy should include a national infrastructure development bank and a new housing trust fund to develop affordable housing in mixed-income neighborhoods.

The empowerment of American workers cannot reasonably proceed without the reconstruction of a regulatory system based on the policies of the New Deal and the priorities of President Theodore Roosevelt.  If there ever was a time to demand protection of and accountability to Main Street Americans, it is now. America needs a powerful and bipartisan oversight and control board to monitor implementation of a new financial system, anti-trust action to break up the power of the largest financial institutions, controls on the ability of banks to create unlimited credit, remuneration structures in financial institutions that are not biased in favor of reckless speculation, elimination of golden parachutes to Wall Street executives who led the speculation, limits on the remuneration of CEO’s in corporations that sell assets to the U.S. Treasury, restriction of the more toxic forms of derivatives and strict controls over the activities of hedge funds.

To assist the average citizen more, the federal government should be granted warrants to acquire stock in financial firms that profit from the federal bailout of 2008. Taxpayers should be able to share in the gain if the firms recover. Bankruptcy courts should be given the power to change mortgage provisions to keep people in their homes. Refinancing plans for borrowers should be implemented post haste.  The 2008 taxpayer-financed bailout, including financial assistance to banks and auto makers, must not be used as an excuse for again postponing the Kerner Commission’s job, economic, education and health priorities recommended here for the middle class, the working class and the truly disadvantaged. That is all the more reason to rescind the irresponsible 2001 and 2003 tax cuts to the rich. At the same time, tax cuts should be provided to the rest of the citizenry, as part of the federal government’s fiscal stimulus. This tax policy will be a step in reducing inequality.