When rock bands on Jimmy Kimmel Live are screaming “I need a job” during the final musical act, you know it has gotten bad.
Chicken Foot, a band that performed on the late night comedy show on Thursday, read aloud hand-written letters from unemployed veterans, a homeless nine year-old child, and a 51-year old father who recently lost his job—in between the measures of their “I need a job” chorus.
In the never ending cycle of art-life imitation, Chicken Foot doesn’t have to rely on the creative wiles of artists to be heard; Screaming “I need a job” over and over again goes over like a Picasso. The catchy melody linked up and made friends with something that was already in your psyche, just hours after the American Jobs Act of 2011 infrastructure piece was shot down. Millions stayed up to watch Jimmy Kimmel Live before drifting off to sleep. How many of them were jobless recent college graduates who were able to apply the veracity of Chicken Foot’s song to their own lives?
We are entering into a time when a college education—while critical to the future success of youth—especially those growing up in poverty, high risk environments, or just relative disadvantage—becomes harder to defend as a practical route, as a growing number of recent college grads were singing along with our friends on Jimmy Kimmel.
At the rate we are going, it will soon prove difficult for us to offer viable examples of those who were successful with the tried-and-true, straight and narrow. This is especially significant for minority communities, where positive role models and close proximity examples of success are critical for creating a culture of education.
Becoming educated in America is a long and expensive process that has more times than not proven to be a safe investment. But is the economic state and government impasse over unemployment matters threatening our higher learning paradigms?
We have worked so hard to instill college-going values in communities, but the current downturn and lack of partisan cooperation threaten to undermine those efforts—especially when we can’t agree on how to put people back to work (sacrificing some other important aspect of social welfare versus bringing in additional revenue from a source that can spare it).
What does this mean for American families? For some in the inner-city, children get jobs themselves when parents are out of work, often trading the luxury of making education a priority for the security of regular meals. The message subtly becomes that education—and college—has less utility today than what has always been purported.
Just this week DoSomething.org ran a poll on 200,000 young people, asking them if they thought college was worth it. 33% answered either no or that they didn’t know. The unemployment rates and loan default levels of recent college graduates don’t serve as strong rebuttals, and it is highly doubtful that those polled did not understand the normative relationship between school and jobs. Many feel as though they do not need school to make a contribution to society (ie. Run a household), and there are many who unable to attain neither [school nor a job].
Young adults who do not find a place in the work force and who also lack access to educational infrastructure because of academic lag or social factors are in desperate need of a transition mechanism. The American Jobs Act of 2011—while highly contested and defeated in its piecemeal manner—does get a number of things right: It recognizes young America as a critical demographic which must be catered to if we want a fighting chance for nominal and real growth. Its Pathways Back to Work Program provides funding for training and job-placement programs for youth and low income adults.
The bill also seeks to provide funding for 400,000 teacher jobs and protect 280,000 more that may be threatened by dwindling state budgets. It seeks to help find employment for the construction worker whose children need to believe in the American Dream so American can have a better reality. Finally, it asks the wealthy few to sacrifice for the increasingly disillusioned many—including a growing number of youth who no longer see the point of college and a growing number of recent college graduates who stay up late watch Jimmy Kimmel Live because they have no job to go to.
There is a difference between worth and cost. Theories of economics tend to acknowledge this difference, often putting great trust in the abilities of individuals to be rational and act in their own best interests, even if it means sacrificing something in the short run for a greater long-term return.
But is it possible for a group to act in its own best interest when there are so many opposing subgroups, egos, and politics at play? Or when some groups are not even thinking about the best interests of the whole? In the long run—perhaps yes, but not until something drastic happens. This is why you see draconian revisions of life like The French Revolution, and this is why you see the fledgling, yet obstinate Occupy Atlanta. But what about the short-run? What about right now?
It is decision time. Can America’s wealthy rise to the occasion to help save and create not only jobs—but a renewed paradigm and legitimacy of education as an instrument of upward mobilization? A belief in working hard for great companies? Can the American government differentiate between cost and worth?
On Thursday night, our Congress said no.
Editor's Note: Kwanza Fisher is the founder and executive director of Neighborhood Mathematica, a supplemental math education program for Atlanta students in grades 1-8. Earlier this year, Fisher was one of a handful of scholars from around the nation selected by the Obama administration for the prestigious Champion of Challenge Youth Entrepreneur designation. Fisher, who grew up in the Cascade community, is fluent in Mandarin Chinese, holds a B.A. from Wellesley College in East Asian Studies, and has studied in Beijing and Hangzhou, China.