Eric Frazier

A new inner-city anti-poverty plan

We’d all like to see more young men in America’s inner cities find stable, good-paying jobs to report to each morning.

We’re less united on the question of how to make that happen.

Many conservatives say these men simply need to take responsibility for their own actions – stop dropping out of school, stop committing crime, stop having babies you can’t take care of, and quit blaming white people for all your problems.

Liberals say look deeper – to centuries of slavery, decades of Jim Crow and the lingering reality of white privilege, all of which they believe stacks the deck against these men.

Ron Leeper, a former Charlotte City Council member, is offering a proposal that should appeal to those on both ends of that spectrum.

Leeper, president of R.J. Leeper Construction, helped create Men Who Care Global. That’s the group of orange-T-shirt-wearing black men who began turning out at uptown events to help keep the peace after a melee left one man dead after a Memorial Day weekend festival in 2011.

Leeper says as they talked to young men on the streets, they heard the same refrain: I can’t find a job. Leeper hired several as apprentices.

He encouraged subcontractors on his job sites to put them to work. His firm paid their salaries while they learned framing, masonry or whatever skill the subcontractor could teach. One young man who worked with an electrical company won a permanent job as an estimator.

Leeper wondered if the city of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County could do the same thing with companies that receive tax or other economic development incentives to set up shop here.

What if local government encouraged – but didn’t mandate – that such firms ask subcontractors working on their new facilities to hire jobless young men from the city’s high-poverty areas as apprentices?

What if you offered everything from vocational classes to “people skills” training to ready them for the job sites?

Leeper’s goal: a public-private partnership to underwrite the first six months’ pay, at $10 per hour, for 100 men from Charlotte’s toughest neighborhoods.

Of course, some of the men won’t make it to full-time jobs. But it would give them a chance. If nothing else, they’d have resume-enhancing experience.

Deputy City Manager Ron Kimble calls the idea “very interesting.” City staff is studying it.

There are many unknowns. How much would this cost? Who would pay? Would it scare companies away? What about women?

Still, if only 30 or 40 percent of participants latched on to entry-level jobs and new career paths, wouldn’t that put a dent in inner-city poverty?

Wouldn’t it be a start, at least?