Fifty years ago this month, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., looked to Newark and other urban communities and explained that the country consisted of "two Americas," divided by race.
King explained that, in one America, "millions of young people grow up in the sunlight of opportunity," with the ability to realize their full potential.
But in the "other America," people "find themselves perishing on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity."
Fifty years later, perhaps no other city embodies both the reality of the two Americas and the possibility of bridging these entrenched divides more than the mighty city of Newark, New Jersey's largest city.
As a testament to Newark's economy, the majority of the people employed here earn more than $40,000 each year, according to a report the organization I lead, the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, just released.
But this prosperity has not been shared by the majority of Newark residents.
We found that the poverty rate for black residents of Newark is an astonishing 33 percent, more than double the national average for all races.
This is part of a broader, troubling picture: Newark residents, incredibly, hold only 18 percent of all jobs in the city. And while almost three-quarters of Newark residents are people of color, 60 percent of the people employed in Newark are white.
Importantly, these disparities in employment cannot be explained by Newark residents not wanting to work or being unqualified to work. Instead, these racial disparities reflect the accumulation of decades of law and policy decisions at the federal, state, and city level, structural changes in the economy, and discrimination that limits economic opportunity and makes it difficult for local residents to connect to work.
These are systemic problems that require systemic solutions to create a more just New Jersey for all our residents.
Our report tells a story about Newark, but also about all of our cities across our state. Our cities hold incredible promise to advance an agenda that unites us, and to incubate progressive solutions to some of the greatest social and racial justice challenges of our time in the areas of income inequality, re-imagining criminal justice, and building an inclusive democracy.
The solutions to these enduring challenges will come from the ground up in our cities. At the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, we are focused on creating these solutions.
First, New Jersey must raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. As one of the wealthiest states in the nation, with one of the highest costs of living, New Jersey should phase in an increase of the minimum wage to $15 an hour, starting immediately by raising the minimum wage to $12 an hour. Research shows that raising the minimum wage to $12 an hour nationally would not produce any net economic drawbacks, which is especially true in New Jersey given the many competitive economic advantages that our state has. Most importantly, raising the minimum wage will increase the ability of many individuals and families in the state to support themselves, lifting hundreds of thousands of people out of poverty, and reducing the gender and race pay gaps in the state.
Second, New Jersey must end the failed experiment of youth incarceration. Incredibly, black youth comprise nearly 75 percent of those committed to state juvenile facilities in New Jersey, even though black and white youth commit similar offenses at similar rates. New Jersey's system of incarceration is based on racialized policies that treat certain children as children, while forcing others -- particularly children of color -- into incarceration. Locking up our kids in large youth prisons harms them irreparably at a critical stage in their development and, as 80 percent of youth have a new court filing or are rearrested within a few years after release, perpetuates racial disparities. Though it fails to reduce recidivism or increase public safety, it nevertheless costs New Jersey taxpayers over $200,000 per year to incarcerate each child.
New Jersey should instead develop and strengthen community-based intervention, prevention, diversion, and alternatives-to-incarceration programming for our youth. Community-based programming has been proven to increase public safety at a fraction of the cost of incarceration. For example, programming provided by organizations such as Youth Advocate Programs, Inc. successfully provides kids with intensive wrap-around services while decreasing recidivism rates -- all at a cost of around $75 a day per child. For those young people who may need to be placed in secure placement for public safety reasons, they should be sent to small, treatment-centered facilities that are close to home and familial support.
Third, New Jersey must ensure that every person has their voice heard in our democracy, so that our next steps as a community, state, and as a nation reflect our collective and robust participation. New Jersey must therefore restore voting rights to people with criminal convictions. Even though there should be no connection between voting and a criminal conviction, New Jersey's law currently disqualifies almost 100,000 people from voting, with over 70,000 of those people living in our communities, raising families, and paying taxes. Nearly half are black, a result of racial discrimination in the criminal justice system. New Jersey should immediately restore voting rights to people on parole and probation. As the state continues its public dialogue around criminal justice reform and envisions its future, it is important that those most deeply impacted by economic inequality and the criminal justice system have their voices heard.
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I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!