OEDEL: Is 979 a magic number?

January 12, 2014 

Auburn University barely lost the national collegiate football championship last Monday in thrilling fashion, but the Deep South city of Auburn, Ala., remains a big long-run winner.

Since 1960, helped by the university’s development, the city of Auburn’s population has rocketed from 16,261 to 56,908, a 350-percent increase.

Since 1960, by contrast, Bibb County has barely grown from 141,249 to 156,462, merely 11 percent in 54 years, despite the South now being the fastest-growing part of the country. How does Auburn differ from Macon such that Auburn grew more than 30 times faster than Macon during that period?

Auburn University obviously has a superb football program and a growing research university, but that doesn’t explain the dramatic differences. Mercer University itself has grown substantially, and Macon doesn’t need to rely on Mercer for growth as much as the city of Auburn relies on its university.

Macon’s role as a regional medical center during an era of rapid expansion in health care, plus Macon’s transportation nexus, should have more than compensated for Auburn University’s relatively faster growth compared with Mercer.

One distinction is that Auburn’s public school system is ranked by resources such as Parenting magazine and U.S. News & World Report as among the country’s best, while Bibb’s school system has one of the nation’s worst outcomes. In the last year for which we have comparable data, 2012, the Auburn system had an 88 percent graduation rate compared with Bibb’s 53 percent.

I don’t mean to malign Bibb schools, because their project is huge. Less than a quarter of Auburn’s school kids live in poverty, compared with 78-plus percent of Bibb’s school kids. So much for our 50-year “War on Poverty” using welfare as the prime weapon.

Bibb’s schools do educate some wonderful successes, like Julian Harris. He went on to Duke, then medical school, then ran Medicaid in Massachusetts. Last summer, President Obama tapped Harris to try to rescue Obamacare from itself. Harris now works in the White House.

Like Harris, though, Bibb’s stars typically leave. Disproportionately remaining are dropouts and unemployable graduates. Bibb’s youths are at risk for chronic unemployment, getting pregnant, becoming dependent on the dole, joining gangs, committing crimes, doing time and generally posing threats to everyone’s interests.

The salient goals for the great majority of Bibb’s young people should be employability and gainful legal employment. The irony is that perhaps the best way to demonstrate basic entry-level employability is actual employment on a job. But that can be a Catch-22. How do young people get experience?

The good news is that we can give many of our young people critical work experience by employing them in summer jobs. The city of Chicago, which has many of Macon’s problems on a larger scale, successfully experimented last summer by providing 17,000 summer jobs to at-risk Chicago young people under a program called One Summer Chicago. Adjusting for population, a comparably sized program in Macon would employ 979 in summer jobs.

Employing 979 at-risk youths in Macon-Bibb 40 hours weekly at minimum wage for 10 weeks would cost about $3 million. That may sound like a lot, but not so much when you consider Macon-Bibb’s Economic Opportunity Council is running through about $17 million public dollars annually.

EOC President Lonnie Miley is not exactly an exemplar of diamond-clarity fiscal transparency, but one can still fairly deduce that lots of EOC funding is effectively being wasted by the EOC’s own stated benchmark of breaking Macon’s cycle of poverty. The EOC fails repeatedly, with no consequence. Summer jobs for at-risk youths, though, could make a meaningful difference in breaking Macon’s poverty cycle.

I challenge our new Macon-Bibb leaders, school officials, the local legislative delegation, private employers, agencies and foundations to find ways to create 979 summer jobs for our at-risk Macon youths this summer.

Our kids may not become significant contributors right away, but by showing them what work is about, we can make a real impact on their appreciation for how anyone can best make a success of oneself in America.

That is, by working.

David Oedel works at Mercer law school.

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